LA WEEKLY 10-17-2003

"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.


"Back Story"

by Steve Pezman
Photo by Fred Pompermayer

Topanga: Chumash for “where the mountains meet the sea”

A point break a few miles south of Malibu, Topanga works the other half of the year. Not good enough often enough to be a destination for long road trips, it can be hard to drive by it on the way to somewhere else when it’s working. There used to be a colony of rustic, weathered cottages lining the beach shoulder-to-shoulder from the creek outlet at the top of the point, toward Chart House Point at the south end. The closely bunched cottages constituted a wall that you had to be invited beyond, or sneak through, if you weren’t connected. If surfers were out they’d be residents or the friends of residents and occasionally you would note it being empty though good.

At its best, entire sections zipper, one after the other, demanding an unending speed trim. The rare wave made far down the beach from a point takeoff is notable, as usually it outpaces you eventually. Southerly and northwest swells miss or are blocked but on wests it is a stellar gem. The one downer: the rocky bottom is too sharp to put your foot onto, so instead, sans board, you do stomach-sucked-in skimming.

By the ’60s, the circa 1930s and 1940s cottages had become mostly rentals for fringe dwellers, dropouts, intellectuals, film industry hopefuls, a few UCLA students, and eccentric beach families. My friend Bob Beadle lived there in 1964 and 1965 while attending UCLA and I would drop by to surf on the way borne from a night job over the hills in the Valley. Hailing from the coast south of L.A. and normally one of those drive-by guys, I soon realized the wave’s potential. I also discovered that, in character with the surroundings, Bob’s roommates and neighbors constituted an outlandish mix, who were all surfing their way through an improvised stage of life.

There was ex-Marine turned writer/magazine founder-to-be, Bill Cleary, who along with erudite Professor David Stern (UCLA), was collaborating on the Surf Guide to Southern California, the first-ever surf guidebook. Stern later donated his extensive research for another scholarly, definitive, but never-published book entitled Notes for a Book on Surfing, 1963, to the Surfing Heritage Foundation. (He had become a rabbi by then, living on a kibbutz in Israel with his family.) Following the book project, Cleary teamed up with one-time lifeguard gone Makaha Skateboards impresario Larry Stevenson to found the brief but brilliant Surf Guide Magazine, introducing Playboy-style interviews and (in my opinion) what was, at that time, the most avanti cover in surf mag history.

The early issues were brainstormed at Topanga and some articles assigned to roomies (i.e. “Mexican Malibu” by George Van Noy). Eventually a satire-laced Surf Guide column by fellow resident Bob Feigel provided Surfer founder Severson with enough fuel to pressure Surf Guide into submission.

Neighbor Larry Krause became a recognizable figure when filmed walking past Grant Rohloff’s camera with board underarm wearing a swastika-emblazoned Nazi helmet (mind-you, just ten years after WWII). Grant, the only active surf filmmaker north of L.A. at the time, was also a Topanga guy. The Fitzpatricks resided in an actual family home on cottage row, with dad providing a vestige of oversight to the lot of them, including his precocious, skate-brat/surfer son Jimmy. Surf Punks guitarist Steve Dragon hung out. His brother Daryl and gal friend Toni would soon become recording celebrities, known as Captain and Tennille. This was, as you were often reminded, a Hollywood beach. Even Dora used his assumed entry privileges into everywhere, via Cleary at Topanga, to reap the waves there.

By the later ’60s, Topanga, like other beach towns, had turned a bit more radical. A life focused around surfing became a passive way to thumb your nose at all the surrounding conventions. Generations turned over at the beach too. The 50s, then the 60s and 70s cycled through their own casts, memberships filtered by the nature of the place. Then suddenly, it was over. The cottage leases were nulled by the State, the structures bulldozed, the beach opened to general public use, and a parking lot was installed. Topanga was restored to a scarred version of its former self: a canyon-stream outlet, a sandy crescent sweep, washed by waves that peeled right. But now you paid to park.


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