Karen Gallagher started the magazine Paumalu Press more than 15 years ago to inform her rural North Shore community about an impending development, a topic she’s had plenty to write about in the years since. 

“I’m sure the developers don’t really like me or the magazine,” she says. “But if they did like me or my magazine, I’d be doing something wrong I think.” 

The 61-year-old Gallagher is part of the famous Van Dyke surf family, but it would be a mistake to say that’s her only claim to fame. She’s been a fixture of the community in her own right for decades, her name cropping up in the profiles of now-famous surfers who reference a surf  shop she used to own as helping them get their starts.

Karen Gallagher, who used to run the iconic Sunset Beach Surf Shop, now edits her North Shore civic magazine Paumalu Press. Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2022

Neither the surf shop nor the magazine have been the most financially stable ventures – a fact she’d be the first to admit.

But in a place many now consider overrun with outside money, her approach is a reminder of — and a call to return to — the North Shore’s old way of life.

Sunset Beach Surf Shop

Gallagher grew up in Santa Cruz, where she surfed the same chilly waters that spawned the wetsuit company O’Neill. She moved to the North Shore of Oahu when she was 17, first renting her uncle’s house before moving in with some other Santa Cruz transplants.

It’s no secret that the North Shore’s surf scene, especially in decades past, is a place where local respect is highly valued – so it helped that Gallagher’s “Uncle Fred” was Fred Van Dyke, who had moved to Hawaii in the 1950s and has since been called a pioneer of the sport.

But even with this head start, she said, she always sought to show respect to locals when out on the waves.

She worked in surf shops and then, with a loan from her father, bought Sunset Beach Surf Shop when she was 19, operating what was then Oahu’s only surf shop north of Haleiwa for 14 years before it was looted and burned in 1995. 

Flanking some of the world’s most famous waves – along with Kammie’s Market, a local North Shore favorite of yesteryear – its location along the region’s main arterial road would be prime real estate today. 

But 40 years ago?

“It was dead,” said Gallagher. “Summers, nobody came to the North Shore … I mean, my surf shop, I could fall asleep.”

Pedestrians walk along Kamehameha Highway in Haleiwa town.
Nowadays, traffic abounds on Kamehameha Highway, where only one lane runs each direction along the North Shore. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

She’d go to the back for this, waking up to the “clunk clunk” of her shop’s 8-track cassette player as it switched songs and peeking to see if any customers had entered. The answer was often no. 

Business was not always booming, but she tried to make the most of it. In the early 1980s, a young local boy named Rainos Hayes – who later became Billabong’s Hawaii team manager – came into Sunset Beach Surf Shop with his friend Tom Wojotowicz. Gallagher sponsored the two of them as inaugural members of her surf team.

“It was really fun,” she said.

Along with free and discounted gear, “I’d give them a T-shirt and a sticker they’d put on their board, and they were on the team. It was neat, because it gave them a lot of pride.”

Hayes remembers the experience fondly.

“There weren’t a lot of role models out here back then, and there weren’t a lot of options. And her helping us was just a way of being positive in an environment that wasn’t guaranteed the most friendly,” he said.

Soon Gallagher had a legion of kids – she thinks it was close to 20 over the years – representing Sunset Beach Surf Shop.

A few of them, like Pancho Sullivan and Shawn Briley, eventually even became professional surfers. 

For local kids who liked to surf but didn’t have much money, said Briley, “she was by far the biggest supporter.” He continued sticking the Sunset Beach Surf Shop sticker on his board even after going pro.

The good times didn’t last forever. In 1995, after the shop was looted and burned, Gallagher – reeling from that and from other personal difficulties – moved back to Santa Cruz for a year. 

But after surfing the North Shore for so long, how could she be content anywhere else?

Her young daughter in tow, Gallagher returned to Hawaii with few possessions and stayed with a friend while getting back on her feet.

She didn’t think much about reopening her surf shop; that was a past life. 

And anyway, she said, it “wasn’t like it was a real money-making venture, not back then. There wasn’t anybody out here … It’s really a whole different North Shore.”

People have their own theories as to when and why the shift occurred.

Some of the details differ – Gallagher thinks 9/11 made American tourists want to travel more domestically, for example – but the consensus seems to be that more people have wanted to experience the North Shore during the past couple decades.

Tourism grew. In 2006, Turtle Bay resort looked set to expand its footprint, which many residents feared would translate into further strain on their already inadequate infrastructure. It seemed hopeless to oppose, because the permits – it was thought – had already been issued.

“And then I got invited to a Defend Oahu Coalition meeting, the Keep the Country Country people, and found out that it wasn’t a done deal,” said Gallagher. “They didn’t have all the permits. And so we’re like, ‘How do we get the word out?’”

Paumalu Press

Paumalu Press – named after the ahupuaa (a division of land under Hawaii’s traditional resource management system) encompassing Sunset Beach – launched soon after, its first issue focusing on the resort’s proposed expansion around Kawela Bay. 

In her opening editorial note, Gallagher introduced her newest entrepreneurial project:

“Welcome to the first issue of the Paumalu Press. My name is Karen Gallagher, and it has long been a dream of mine to create a forum to present the challenges and solutions of our day to day lives,” she wrote.

Paumalu Press’s first issue focused on informing readers about plans to expand Turtle Bay resort. Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2022

She’d thought about starting a magazine since working quiet days in her surf shop, she said. But not a surf magazine – something more civic, more involved with her community. 

Paumalu Press is free and widely distributed. Gallagher drops off copies at the businesses that advertise within its pages, and at mom-and-pop shops in Central Oahu as far as Wahiawa and along the Windward Coast as far as Kahaluu. 

Sometimes, when she gets enough advertising revenue, she’ll go even further. 

“I’ve taken them all around the island. I’ve taken them out to Waianae side. Makaha. Kaneohe. Kailua. Randomly around town,” she said.

Usually she’ll talk to the store owners, but “there are places I stealth ninja drop – you know, like Starbucks, Jamba Juice, stuff like that.” 

A few hundred people even paid a $15 annual fee for direct delivery subscriptions.

With circulation between 3,500 and 7,000 copies, plenty of people read it, and with enthusiasm. 

“She doesn’t pass herself off as a fabulous journalist, but what she does do is she’ll go out and she’ll have somebody who represents each side of an issue and invite them to write a story about it,” said Bob Leinau, who’s lived on the North Shore for about 50 years. 

“I mean, she’s a real hero,” he said.

She likes to have fun with it, even if not everyone enjoys its coverage. In fall 2007, an anonymous letter was slid under the doors of many Paumalu Press advertisers.

“Dear North Shore Business Owner,” it reads. “I recently picked up a copy of ‘Paumalu Press.’ I was stunned to see how unprofessional the publication has become.”

The letter-writer disagreed with how Gallagher covered vacation rentals, claiming that she was heavily biased against unpermitted rentals. It called for business owners to stop advertising in Paumalu Press. 

Gallagher published the letter in the next issue. Beneath it, she published a response:

“Okay, my turn. And I get to use a larger font for my side because it’s my magazine, and I’m unprofessional, so there!” 

Gallagher argued that she had in fact provided space for all sides of the issue, adding a call to action to readers urging them to thank the advertisers who are “standing up for Paumalu Press, standing up for an alternative press, standing up for the little guys out here.”

All of this underneath the title “ANONYMOUS COWARD GOES AFTER THE PAUMALU PRESS.”

Not About The Money

Sometimes it’s hard to solicit pieces from all sides, she admitted recently – in fact, sometimes it’s hard to solicit pieces at all.

“I’ve been disappointed at how hard it is to get articles from people I think would be excited to contribute,” she said. “But on the other hand, I don’t have any money to pay anybody. I go in the hole on a lot of the issues,” adding that it typically requires about $7,000 in ad sales to break even.

“And I don’t always get them, because I’m a terrible ad salesperson,” she said.

But it’s not really about the money. Even when she was running Sunset Beach Surf Shop, her surf team of kids was likely costing her money, she said. 

She at least partially attributes this philosophy to her membership in the Baha’i faith, which she says prioritizes generosity in contrast to the American edict to amass wealth.

“In America, you’re not supposed to be happy unless you’re rich and own your own house. I’m never going to own my own house,” she said.

Her sister Kristina Marquez, who Gallagher rents with, is similar.

“As far as business goes, I’ve made nothing but poor, horrible decisions my whole life,” said Marquez. “But I don’t care.”

It’s only the experiences money can buy that are worth something, she said — taking a spontaneous road trip from Santa Cruz up to San Francisco, or staying a night in Waikiki with her husband when his health was failing.

“Those are the times that I hold so close to me, that I’m so glad that I did. You know, rather than saving it … I think because we lost our mom so young, we both have a really bad attitude about money,” Marquez said, laughing.

So much has changed for Gallagher throughout her life. The North Shore she fell in love with doesn’t exist anymore. She’s even thought about leaving clogged Kam highway for a better life within Molokai’s Baha’i community – but there’s a sense of kuleana that keeps her from making the jump, she said.

“It’s kind of funny. There was this cartoon back when I was a kid, and it had all the, I think it was Hanna-Barbera characters, and they were all in this area and it was all full of trash and smoke and smog. And they’re like, ‘Oh, we need to go someplace nice.’ 

“And so they all got in their balloons and stuff and they flew and they went to another place, and it was all beautiful with trees and stuff. And then after a while, it got ugly, and they got up and they moved again … And then finally they said, ‘Oh, I know – we need to make this the perfect place.’”

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