The Hamel Brothers
(page 1 of 2)Excerpted by Virginia Butterfield from San Diego Beach Culture by Don Fells
It’s an intangible; a feeling, really. Coming over that bridge on West Mission Boulevard in my fluorescent green VW Thing, I get an adrenaline rush and floor my rustbucket. As I turn left onto Mission Boulevard, I hear the thunder of the roller coaster and the excited screams of its passengers. I pull into the east parking lot of Belmont Park, privy to the knowledge that rarely will you find a spot in the west parking lot, closer to the ocean. I don my Rollerblades and head up the Boardwalk.
I grew up on ice skates, so it’s no surprise I’m nicknamed “Flash” by other Mission Beach Boardwalk regulars. I move through the beach culture of the Boardwalk imagining I’m Wayne Gretzky skating on goal, throwing in a deke here, a spin there, side stance, crossover, jump, power slide. “He shoots; he scores!” I throw my arms in the air and then remember where I really am, with people observing me quizzically.
Two observers of my acrobatics are the Hamels, Ray and Dan, fooling around in front of Hamel’s Action Sports Center. We’ve been friends for a long time, so they’re not shocked by my delirium. God, I feel good! I mean really good!
This is where it’s at, baby—the Boardwalk. This is the epicenter: ground zero of the whole Mission Beach culture. Looming over it is Hamel’s black castle, at one time the globe’s largest purveyor of in-line skates—before the rest of the world caught on to one of today’s fastest-growing sports in America. And there they are, the uncrowned kings of Mission Beach since 1967, standing in front of the quasi-fortress they’ve occupied for more than 30 years.
The Hamels built their enterprise into an empire with plenty of hard work. Don’t be surprised if it’s one of the two owners working on your skates—or even waiting on you when you rent a bike. Leaning over the trash receptacle outside is Ray Hamel. Dan is blow-sweeping the sidewalk. I power slide to a stop in front of Ray’s “desk.” No phone, no fax—his style. In the moment. One on one.
In the beginning, the Hamels rented and repaired bicycles, surfboards and rubber rafts, but gradually they tried new things—expanding into sportswear, Boogie boards, roller skates. They even combined their talents to train boxers and promote boxing events. Their Miss Mission Beach beauty contest is one of San Diego’s most popular events. In addition to owning and operating the store, they’re major stockholders in one of America’s leading sportswear companies—No Fear. In its fifth year, No Fear sales were in the multimillions.
As we settle back to talk, I ask them how they ended up owning this prime chunk of real estate. (The building has won a Stinky Onion award, which is a dubious distinction given by the local architectural society.)
They’d been leasing Hamel’s Action Sports Center since the late ’60s, but the owner died and the lease ran out. They were renting month-to-month when the owner’s widow approached on a Tuesday and said she would put the building on the market Friday.
Friday. That was three days. “But Dan and I both declared, in tandem, we’d take it,” says Ray. “Although we didn’t have a dime between us. There was a developer interested in our Yarmouth Court two-bedroom shack. He wanted to tear it down, plus an old house next to it, and build condominiums, of which he’d give us the pick of the litter.”
Instead of the condo, Ray and Dan accepted $70,000, to use to buy Hamel’s. “Then we went from paying rent to mortgage payments, which were quadruple the sum,” says Ray. Dan was then
a commercial painter and Ray a sheet-metal worker, so they fell back on their professions to cover the mortgage and worked at Hamel’s when they could.
“There was this guy renting indoor skates in the old amusement park,” Ray explains, “so I said to Dan, ‘Hey, look at all the girls! Let’s rent skates!’ The technology at the time was clay or hard plastic wheels and loose ball bearings. Hamel’s started out renting skates with skateboard Road Runner II wheels and sealed bearings. They became the rage.
“But in 1990, when Rollerblade released an in-line skate, they didn’t really catch on. Kids weren’t into them. The skates just sat around the shop until I convinced Rollerblade to give me 50 pairs to rent,” says Ray. “Realizing that this is the dating capital of the world, I had a promotion where everyone met at Hamel’s to go skating from 9 p.m. until midnight for $5. Hundreds of people showed up. I thought someone got shot, or something. It was like a Junior League rummage sale outside Hamel’s when I got to work. Then I realized they were all there to rent skates.”
ere were two brothers, leaders of the youthful set, with very checkered backgrounds. Their French-Canadian parents were shop owners in Maryland, and the family lived over an island store. Later, they resided 2 miles up a dirt road. Ray had asthma attacks as a child—one so bad that when they couldn’t find an ambulance, they rushed him to Washington, D.C., in a hearse. Overwhelmed by this, their dad packed up the family and moved to St. Louis. Things didn’t improve—health- or job-wise—so they drove to San Diego and bought the two-bedroom house on Yarmouth.
As a teenager in Mission Beach, Ray says, he was “a motorhead to the core. Cars, cars, cars. It was a big problem with girls, because my cars came first. ‘No, can’t go out; got to fix my transmission.’ They’d be peeved at me. Cars were my frolic symbol, not phallic symbol.
“My first car was a ’34 Ford coupe. We’d cruise Mission Boulevard and have drag races. The Old Ox used to be a drive-in restaurant called Oscar’s, where we’d hang out. Carhops would serve us cheeseburgers and Cokes. We’d cruise all night, then go to school that morning.”
School was not high on Ray’s list. “Nothing in school interested me. I got kicked out the last day of 11th grade for ‘smoking’ tires in the parking lot. I graduated because girlfriends helped with term papers, and I went to summer school. Dan used to joke that school was year-round at Mission Bay High for me. I almost got expelled from summer school and didn’t graduate because I was late three times. When I explained to the teacher that we got stuck in the mud while driving our boat to school...” (This was before they dredged Mission Bay.)
Dan has been listening to this recital with polite interest. He’s the quiet one. People tend to think of him as the performer of custodial duties. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “People call the shop all the time to speak to the owner. Ray and I are 50-50. But he tells everyone he’s the owner. I just go along with it.” Dan’s been blowing debris off the sidewalk, keeping a keen eye out for loose change.
“If you had all the money laying on the streets in California, you’d never have to work,” says this millionaire looking for loose nickels. “Pay phones are good targets. People frequently drop change while fumbling for it in their pocket. It may roll into a crack or out of sight. I’ll find it, though,” he assures me.
He’s now switched to putting bikes from the shed into the corral area out front. Everything is very systematic. It’s a procedure he’s done so many times, it’s become an efficient routine.
“I don’t know what it is,” says Dan, “but basically I’m a pretty violent guy.” (This is a surprise turn in the conversation.) “I know football and wrestling in high school were good channels for it, but unfortunately I didn’t limit it to organized sports. I was a hoodlum. I’d go to parties with my six-pack of beer and just wait for someone to look at me wrong, push me or whatever. Then I’d start a fight. I had problems with authority figures, too, like my high school football coach.
“I played defense and offense while lettering in football and wrestling at Mission Bay. One day Coach calls a team meeting, so I take off work from my job as a professional painter and tell my boss I’ll return in half
an hour. Well, the meeting gets delayed, so I tell Coach, I’ve got to return to work. Coach says if work is more important, then quit.
“I quit. I tried to get into La Jolla High. But Coach called the school and told them I didn’t live in the district. So they rejected me. I then go to San Dieguito High and use money from painting to rent a house in the district and live there.”
By age 18, Dan was drinking and fighting all the time. A guy he knew ran with a tough Irish gang called the Galaxies from Mission Hills. Those were the days when you’d fight and the worst thing that could happen was that you got stabbed or hit with an ax handle. His friend had advised Dan that if he got in a fight in a parking lot to go ahead and break off a car antenna—“It’ll keep them back, and they can’t grab you.” Unfortunately, his buddy ended up being fatally knifed at a drive-in.
Dan’s father took him aside and advised him if he kept up the drinking and fighting, he would end up dead. His mother promised him a surfboard if he’d give up smoking. And that was the start of a new career. “I surfed Mexico and Southern California for the next 20 years. I was really into it,” he says.