Few people can make the claim that they’ve lived on every beach along Malibu’s 21 miles, but in the case of Tony Stearns, it’s true.
Stearns moved to Malibu around 1970 at the age of six with his father.
“My dad was a Realtor, and he’d often become the caretaker for beach houses that were for sale, and we’d live in them,” he explained.
Tony’s dad, the Michael of Michael Stearns Real Estate, made a huge splash in LA area publicity when he held a giant auction to sell off the Malibu Pier and 50 other local properties on Feb. 10, 1980 (the pier was still privately owned at the time). The Malibu Times wrote about the auction in a 2005 retrospective (visit bit.ly/PierSale).
Now the owner of Radfish Malibu surf shop at Zuma Beach Plaza, Tony has pretty much always done things his own way. He said he’s the only surf shop owner in Malibu who does his own repairs and can make his own boards.
His store is as much a museum and a workshop as it is a retail outlet. Surfboards needing repairs are stacked up in several parts of the store, his big yellow house cat has the run of the place, and piles of tools and spray paint cans sit between racks of logo t-shirts, straw hats and beach towels. Among all the decorations and memorabilia hanging down from the ceiling and walls, surprises like neon lights, a disco ball, painted mannequins and an old wooden ship’s figurehead pop out.
But Tony knows where everything is. He has had this retail location—his first time in a storefront—for about five years. Before this, he was working out of a three-car garage, had most of his boards made by a factory in Camarillo and had a big pink and black trailer for sales. He thought the next logical step in growing his business would be to open a storefront.
However, things haven’t totally worked out the way Stearns expected. Sales were great the first couple years, he said, but then the market dried up for stand-up paddleboards, the Chinese began taking over more of the surfboard market with cheaper products and more people began buying their surf stuff online. The Woolsey Fire and the current pandemic didn’t help.
At the moment, Tony is focusing more on services that can’t be bought online: repair of surfboards and stand-up paddleboards and surfing and paddleboarding lessons. Surf lessons for total beginners start off right in the Radfish store, where Tony brings out his invention: a one-of-a-kind “surf simulator.” He puts a surfboard on the simulator and the student then has to “surf” on it correctly to avoid falling off. He said it’s easier to learn the basics in the shop—rules like “stay on the center of the board” and “don’t look down”—before going outside to the big ocean and all of its distractions.
When it comes to board repairs, Stearns said he can fix about anything himself.
Growing up in Malibu was great, Tony remembers. Back in the day, the 22-foot-tall La Salsa man on PCH (you know the one) used to be a Hickory Burger man wearing a white chef’s hat and holding a burger.
Stearns attended Webster Elementary and Malibu Park Junior High with other longtime locals in his class, including Andy Lyon and Matt Rapf.
“Malibu was a party town with no supervision,” he said of his high school years.
He’d learned to surf right after moving to Malibu at the age of six, with a secondhand knee board, and also picked up skateboarding.
“Unfortunately, I learned to surf ‘goofy foot’ because no one was teaching me,” Stearns recalled (“Goofy foot” is a right-foot-forward surfing stance). “I finally switched to the [left] foot forward, and by the time I was 12, I was doing top-of-the-line surfing.” He was good enough to have sponsors “all through school.”
Stearns spent six years in the Navy, where he learned diving and went to SEAL school, lived in Maui for a time running a wind surfing concession and photo service, then returned to Malibu and taught windsurfing.
Tony has seen the town change after living here for much of the last five decades.
“Malibu had about the same 5,000 people living here full-time up until about 20 years ago. Now there’s so much big and new money, and new, entitled people have moved in,” he observed.