Mill Valley native Nate McCarthy and San Anselmo native Will Hutchinson, friends who’d met while working at Marin Surf Sports in Tam Junction, decided to open their own surf shop in a tiny 600-square-foot space in the small Poplar Plaza shopping center near the 7-Eleven on Shoreline Highway. The pair had driven a truck to southern California, bought as much surfing equipment and apparel that they could afford, and filled the tiny shop to the brim (see photos above).
Ten years on, the Mill Valley residents have built a mini-empire whose scale is overshadowed only by its variety and its clear vision for how to build community. Across 15,000 square feet at the corner of Shoreline Hwy. and Almonte Blvd., Proof Lab and its partners and subtenants have taken what was once a tiny surf shop and turned it into a hub that includes the Proof Lab surf and skate shop, the Proof Lab Station outdoor apparel shop, an indoor skate park, the Mill Valley Potter’s Studio, music lessons, a biodiesel station, the Little Art Studio and the CNL Native Plant Nursery, not to mention Equator Coffees at Proof Lab, whose arrival in 2013 made the space even more of a gathering spot.
“There was a lot of interest and motivation to make something good and different (in 2004), but the definition of that has changed over time as our intentions and our understanding of the world has changed – it’s been a process,” Hutchinson says.
“It’s all been about the same thing – great retail, building community, and connecting people with the arts and outdoors – but that has gone in a lot of different directions depending on what we’ve gotten into and what space has become available,” he adds.
Proof Lab’s biggest leap came in 2011. Although their business was growing at a healthily steady clip, the longstanding availability of a 10,000-square-foot warehouse that had previously been occupied by Webster Gears became enticing.
“It was a huge risk,” Hutchinson says. “The idea had been to take a leap and absorb some more space and hope the business catches up to that and then exceeds it. But this was a huge move – it was a re-invention.”
That changed everything.
It allowed Proof Lab to move the traditional surf and skate shop into the new space and add the skate park, rooms for music lessons and significantly more storage for inventory. And it allowed to put what is now Proof Lab Station – and outdoor apparel shop that features brands like Patagonia, Filson and Pendleton – in the former gas station space right on Shoreline.
Soon thereafter, the pair leased another 3,000 square feet in a partnership with the dog kennel and grooming business AlphaDog. Launching with a pumpkin patch around Halloween 2011, the venture became the GROW Art & Garden Center, testing a variety of community-oriented ideas. They eventually coalesced into three independent subtenants – Mill Valley Potter’s Studio, Little Art Studio and the CNL Native Plant Nursery.
Two years later, with Equator Coffees & Teas looking to expand their well-established wholesale business with some retail cafes, co-owner Helen Russell and Hutchinson connected on the long-vacant space on the streetfront side of the property. Equator has taken Proof Lab’s distinct sense of community to another level, Hutchinson says.
"Our partnership with Proof Lab has exceeded our expectations - Will and Nate have built a very special business that focuses on the local community, our shared values of making an impact and connection has made for a very special collaboration," Russell says.
The ability of McCarthy and Hutchinson to evolve their business, and their moves over the past three years in particular, have drawn rave reviews, including from both their landlord and their subtenants.
“I love them both to death,” says George Kim, whose family owns the entire property that includes Proof Lab and its partners and subtenants, about McCarthy and Hutchinson. “I love the way they approach business. They’re very community oriented – just great guys. And every year it seems there’s something new that they want to do – it’s a great story.”
For the latest new thing, Proof Lab has looked beyond their space in Tam Junction, building an outdoor public skate park in Marin City. They're in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to pay for it, with Proof Lab matching its $5,000 goal. "It could be a really good thing for Southern Marin as we don't have a good public skate park right now," Hutchinson says.
Jhaya Warmington, an artist and art teacher, met Hutchinson and McCarthy through friends, and jumped at the chance to open Little Art Studio for children as young as 18 months.
“It was a wonderful opportunity,” Warmington says. “To be able to an art program like this in the community when rents are so high is really difficult. But they’ve been so supportive, and they’ve really been mentors for those of us who’ve started these businesses but didn’t understand how to run a business in the beginning.”
For Hutchinson, there was never a blueprint for what the brand and the property would become. Instincts and a bit of serendipity have certainly helped.
“Our interests and our thinking has changed over time,” he says. “When we started all this, we weren’t thinking about biodiesel and ceramics and music lessons and coffee. But none of it’s a surprise either. It all makes sense now and it all feels right.”
The 411: On Saturday, Sept. 27 at 6pm, Proof Lab kicks off its 10-year Anniversary Celebration with a 'Living in Transition' Art Show at Ian Ross Gallery, 466 Brannan St., San Francisco. The show features a host of artists that have worked with Proof Lab directly over the years or indirectly through one of the brands the shop carries, including locals like Zio Ziegler and Mike Shine. The show runs through Oct. 15. Click here for more info.