"Best Bait Shop: Wylie’s"
by Marc Cooper
As the scorched hills over the Pacific Coast Highway still smoldered after the great Malibu fire of 1956, and smoky haze hung over the bay, I remember my father packing me in the car one Saturday and speeding toward the beach to make sure with his own eyes that Wylie’s bait shop had survived the blaze. A half-block north of Topanga Canyon, on the inland side of PCH, Wylie’s stood, to our relief, completely unscathed by the flames.
Almost a half-century later, it looks just about the same: exactly the way a world-class art director would build a bait-shop for a fully authentic big-budget movie. A clapboard rectangle of no more than a few hundred square feet supports a red-tiled roof. A couple of sawed-off pier pilings in front were probably used to tie up horses ridden down by the hill-dwellers above. Inside Wylie’s, the same hardwood plank floor creaks under your heels. Frayed netting and glass floats hanging off the ceiling recall the tiki craze of the Kennedy era. Faded photos of barn-door halibut, bug-eyed rockfish and one or two kayak-size bass are pinned to a wall behind the counter. Green and red scrawlings on a yellowing pane of glass record high and low tides.
If Wylie’s had burned down in 1956, you could have bought monofilament and lead sinkers at the bait shops on the Malibu Pier, at Paradise Cove, at Corral Beach and at Tom Cod’s old place off Washington and Lincoln. Today, Wylie’s is the last fisherman’s store on PCH between Santa Monica and Oxnard. It’s the last standing bait shop, the last place to buy a fishing license, and the last place to buy fresh bait.
Bill and Ruth Wylie opened the tiny store in 1946 as an offshoot of their sporting goods business. And almost immediately, Wylie’s became the go-to place for serious local fishermen. For the next two decades, when the bay still teemed with fish — when you could limit-out on bonito off the Santa Monica Pier, fill two buckets in a short morning with surf perch from the north end of the Venice parking lot, see schools of corbina sucking sand crabs south of Surfrider Beach, and drift for keeper halibut in front of the old Getty — it was Wylie’s who outfitted you.
Most people, myself and my father included, always assumed the gruff, trash-talking, somewhat androgynous guy behind the counter was, in fact, Wylie. Actually, it was Bob Varnum, who ran the store from the early ’60s until he passed away in December of 2000. Bob would bitch and cuss at the slightest provocation. But he’d also take all the time necessary to show you how to tie a surf leader, how to keep fresh bait on a snelled hook, and how to rig for pier fishing. Stopping in to buy a burlap sack of fresh mussels, or a white carton or two of live soft-shell sand-crabs — bait we could just as readily purchase in any other shop — was merely an excuse to spend some time with Bob, catching up on what was biting where and on what.
As urban runoff, PCBs and commercial overfishing of sardines and anchovies strangled the local catch, only Wylie’s survived. As Bob got older and began to falter, his business partner, the original owner’s granddaughter, Ginny Wylie, began to spend more and more time in the shop. Today she runs Wylie’s alone: six days a week, 12 hours a day, living in her grandparents’ makeshift home behind the shop. And it’s no overstatement to say that Ginny is godmother to a loyal legion of surf fishermen, those of us who still wade into the breakers and — using lugworms, rubber grubs, or hand-harvested sand crabs — still battle for perch, croakers and corbina. At her strategic outpost, Ginny’s clientele runs the gamut from gardeners to movie stars. You’re as likely to bump into Cuba Gooding Jr. as a newly arrived immigrant from Michoacán while waiting to pay for hooks and sinkers. Wylie’s continues to be to other tackle shops and sporting goods stores as a Main Street hardware store is to Home Depot.
Unfortunately, the state of California is threatening to wipe out this half-century-old tradition. The patch of PCH that Wylie’s sits on, and extending into the mouth of Topanga Canyon, the last ramshackle, bohemian holdout in Malibu, has recently been acquired by the state. Now earmarked for expansion of Topanga State Park, the residents and businesses — including Wylie’s, the old motel, the noted Reel Inn eatery — all face relocation. Wylie’s wooden bait shop has been declared a historic preservation building, but not the business itself. The relocation contractors that represent the state have already lowballed Ginny, offering a laughably low amount for her residence. And they have failed so far to grant her an acceptable lease-back of the store.
But messing with Ginny Wylie is like taunting a fearless barracuda. She’s refused to settle for any lease that won’t fully guarantee the ongoing operation of the bait shop. "Do they think I’m just going to hand over a 57-year-old business to them?" she said defiantly as I was stocking up on surf leaders the other day. "I would tear this place down myself before letting them take it away." The state bean counters have handed her a 90-day eviction notice, but no one who knows Wylie thinks this is even remotely the end of the battle. Ginny’s got some formidable attorneys. Captain Ron Baker, host of KMPC’s Fish Talk Radio, has taken up her cause. So has the Topanga Messenger, the local paper. But mostly, Wylie’s has an army: 50 years’ worth of appreciative friends and customers who are not about to let our greatest bait shop get turned into a parking lot.
Drop in and see Ginny. She’ll teach you how to fish. 18757 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, (310) 456-2321.