Bob Carlson is kind of like a hippie Z-Boy: As with those erstwhile Lords of Dogtown, he grew up a surfer in Venice and found something else to do when the waves just weren’t happening. Carlson headed to the slopes to snowboard or cruised down the boardwalk on a long-board skateboard. Twelve years ago, he and Chris Jensen decided to combine their passion for board sports with their burgeoning interests in progressive performance, style and concern for the environment. In 1994, after some heavy research and development, and long before the current green trend in board sports, the two pals created Arbor boards and began production on snowboard and skateboard decks made with a conscience from eco-friendly materials.
“We discovered,” Carlson tells me during a recent visit to his shop on a post-card-ready beach day, “that natural materials actually improved performance.”
Experiments showed Carlson and Jensen that using bamboo fiber for the composite layer in their boards made them lighter and more responsive than the typical fiberglass composites. Not only did bamboo perform better, but it proved tough: Despite being light, it has a higher tensile strength than steel, and it resists compression. Not to mention, says Carlson, that bamboo doesn’t require irrigation or pesticides to grow, and once it’s harvested, its roots immediately send up new shoots, so it’s renewable. Cork, they found, absorbs vibrations. And wood from the koa “warrior” tree, used over a thousand years ago by Hawaiians on their ancient surfboards, provides amazing durability.
Their skateboards — mini cruisers, cruisers and carvers — are all made with seven plies of Canadian hard-rock maple and a koa, maple or mixed-wood top layer for a classic stringer style. Each one is treated with a clear grip so the beauty of the wood can shine through.
A homegrown operation, Arbor started out on Lincoln Boulevard and moved to a sweet spot just a hop, skip and an ollie away from the Venice Beach boardwalk on Washington Boulevard about six years ago. At first, the new headquarters was a bit of mystery, hidden in an old rollerskate shop whose faded shimmering sign, sequined like the Sparklett’s truck, was the subject of local gossip. Word on the streets was the sign was placed there to hide an underground skate shop where boards were sold on the down-low in the windowless building. Carlson says that wasn’t true, but they simply kept the sign up because they liked it and, since they distributed their boards to other retailers, there was no need to have a storefront.
That is, until last November, when he and Jensen felt the time had come to open the Arbor doors and deal directly to the public. The sign came down and started another rumor — that it was sold on eBay for thousands. That isn’t true, either. Carlson kept the sign, and says he plans to donate it to a Venice museum.
Now the 500-square-foot retail store is lined with hundreds of wooden skateboard and snowboard decks. It feels more like an art gallery than a skateboard shop. Each deck is one of a kind. To see if the boards perform as well as they look, customers are invited to schedule a demo (test ride).
“Right outside our door,” says Carlson, who can often be found cruising up and down the boardwalk on his way to lunch or on his morning “commute” (he lives a block and a half away from the shop), “is some of the best skateboarding in the world.” Without fail, he adds, customers can’t wait until they get home to try their boards and immediately head for the promenade. Next, the Arbor guys are headed into Fred Segal with a new line of apparel this fall. Their tees are made from 100 percent bamboo fiber, and, like their boards, improve performance. “It’s a miracle plant,” says Carlson, “it’s softer and lighter than cotton and hemp, it wicks moisture, it’s naturally antibacterial, reduces odor, resists discoloration, and it’s hypoallergenic.” Terms like eco-friendly, hypoallergenic and Fred Segal aren’t usually associated with boarders, but at heart, Carlson and Jensen are committed to sideways sports.
“The great thing about living here in L.A.,” says Carlson, “is that you can snowboard all morning up at Mount Baldy and still get in the water by afternoon.”
I rest my case.
Arbor, 102 Washington Blvd., Venice, (310) 577-1120 or www.arborsports.com.