Joe Nuzzo has spent his entire life staying afloat.
In his younger years, that meant staying on top of the waves on a surfboard.
Today, that means keeping his business from going under in a sea of internet shops and big-box beach stores.
Joe Nuzzo owns Suncoast Surf Shop in Treasure Island. Heíll be 75 this year, but the only thing that gives that away is his full head of white hair and thick, white beard. Otherwise, he looks like that surfer dude of long ago, greeting visitors in sunglasses, a T-shirt and knee-length faded jean shorts. An unbuttoned, plaid, flannel shirt that hangs loosely over his T-shirt serves as a jacket on a recent cool spring morning.
"Itís not easy being a small-business owner. Weíre an endangered species," Nuzzo said. "The shop used to do $1.5 million of business a year; now weíre lucky to do $500,000.
"The shop has lost 50 to 70 percent of its business in the last five years."
To Nuzzo, thatís a fact. A simple fact. Not a reason for bitterness. Not a reason for unhappiness. And, certainly not a reason to sell. He took a long road, sometimes through tangled obstacles, other times through clearings made by luck, to get where he is, and heís not going anywhere ó except maybe to lunch with a friend at a restaurant on the beach.
Nuzzoís journey started in 1954, when, as a 10-year-old in East Rockaway, N.Y., he got on a train, the Silver Meteor, bound for Tampa with his mother and three younger siblings.
His parents were getting a divorce and his mom wanted to start a new life in Florida.
"She had only a few hundred bucks and four kids but she wanted to get away," Nuzzo said.
"She was a brave soul, my mother. She wanted to go to Florida. She wanted to go to the beach."
When they got off the train in Tampa, there were buses going two places: One was going to Clearwater, the other to Pass-a-Grille.
"So, she flipped a coin and we ended up on the bus to Pass-a-Grille.
"We needed a place to rent so we got off the bus at the Frank T. Hurley real estate office," Nuzzo said.
"My mother went in and told them, ĎWe need to rent a house and I need a job.í?
"Pass-a-Grille was really neat back then. We rented a little beach house and my mom went to work for Harry Bell, cleaning and packing fish." The fish-processing plant was where the Wharf restaurant is today.
"She worked there from morning until midafternoon. Then she went to bartend at Stanís," Nuzzo said.
And so, 10-year-old Joe was left in charge of three kids. He cooked and cleaned ó and grew to love the beach.
"Everybody in the neighborhood realized Momís plight so they looked out for us," he said.
Eventually, his mother, whose family members were all entrepreneurs in New York, saved up enough money to open a little grocery store on 49th Street in Gulfport. She did well but yearned to be back on the beach, Nuzzo said.
And so, she moved her grocery business to a little store in front of the Seahorse Cottages in Treasure Island.
"Her dream was to watch her kids grow up on the beach. She wanted the sand right there at her feet."
And thatís how it was. He helped out at the grocery store and hung out at the beach as much as possible.
Until he grew up.
He joined the Navy and took a "Kiddie Cruise." The deal allowed him to sign up at 17 and be out one day before his 21st birthday.
When his Navy tour was over, he got a license to work on airplane engines and got a job at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis, where it was 20 degrees. He lasted two days.
He moved to Englewood, Calif., went to work for Hughes Aircraft ó and learned to surf. He would do his job, dipping cables into sodium to etch them before gold-plating, as quickly as possible so he could go surfing. One day, in a hurry, he put more cables in the sodium than he should have. The place caught on fire ó and he got fired.
He took the money he had saved and drove to Matanchen Bay in San Blas, Mexico. He heard there was a milelong wave there that never breaks.
His money ran out in a few months and he was forced to move back in with his mom in Treasure Island. So, he got a job delivering auto parts but he still surfed whenever he could in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, he would always put his surfboard on his work truck just in case he had a few minutes between jobs and the surf was up.
"Iíd jump in the water, take the outgoing tide out and then ride it back in.
"One day the waves were breaking on Upham Beach. Thatís where all the high school kids would go. When I rode the waves back in, the kids would come up to me and ask where they could buy a surfboard," he said.
He started thinking that he could sell surfboards in Treasure Island ó if he had some to sell.
In that entrepreneurial spirit he got from his mom, Nuzzo drove to Cocoa Beach, bought a couple of surfboards, some T-shirts, stickers and candle wax for the boards and found a shop to rent, behind where the Ace Hardware stands now, for $50 a month.
He only had about five customers a day, but the shop doubled as his living quarters, so he stayed in business ó until his landlord kicked him out.
Nuzzo said the owner didnít like the long-haired surfing hippies that hung around his shop.
He still had a Treasure Island retail license so he went driving around in his VW bus, decorated, of course, with flowers, looking for a new place to rent.
And then, he spotted it.
Not someplace to rent but someplace to buy. An old Motorola TV shop was for sale on Gulf Boulevard, just west of the turnoff for Sunset Beach.
The price? $6,250.
He couldnít get a mortgage but the owner agreed to hold the note for him. So, he packed all his merchandise into his VW bus and unpacked it in the new place.
It was 1966 and he was officially in the surf business.
And, thanks to his best customers, high school kids from Lakewood and Dixie Hollins, business was booming. Back then, a new surfboard cost $125; today they are about $400. Gas was 20 cents a gallon.
The shop had its ups and downs. In 1995, the shop burned down after he and a friend decided to wire an "OPEN" neon sign themselves instead of paying an electrician $50 to do it. Lesson learned, Nuzzo said.
But, his ups included hanging out with Jimmy Buffett and John Prine, living on a sailboat in Tierra Verde and keeping his feet in the sand.
He rebuilt the shop, and things were good until the economy crashed in 2007.
"Then the world came apart," Nuzzo said. "People were coming around buying up everything. Small businesses are an endangered species on Planet Earth. Small mom-and-pops are going to be gone unless they sell something you canít buy online.
"Who knows? It may come full circle. People may want to come and actually touch and look at what they want to buy. I sell a lot of sunglasses because people want to try them on."
"I may start selling something you canít get online. Maybe Iíll sell shrimp."
Contact Patti Ewald at [email protected]