Al Giddings first opened Bamboo Reef, a scuba diving shop located at Fourth and Brannan streets, in 1961. Ten years later Sal Zammitti bought the store. In 2016 father and son duo, Mark and Brian Stanley, purchased the shop, which also has an outlet in Monterey.
“I have to tip my hat to Sal for keeping the store alive because our tenure has been too short to say we know what we’re doing,” Mark told the View.
Bamboo Reef is San Francisco’s only dedicated dive shop. Over the years other stores have opened, but ultimately ran out of air. Bamboo Reef survived as a result of Zammitti’s prowess. Throughout the 1970s he gave diving lessons every weekend in Monterey. He organized dive trips to the Channel Islands and Fiji, among other locales, garnering media attention to his experiences. Zammitti appeared in several installments of the television show Mythbusters, most notably the “Jaws” episode. Because of his minor celebrity, Bamboo Reef became well-known; the business flourished.
It doesn’t hurt that the facility has its own onsite pool. To safely scuba dive in the ocean – and gain access to Professional Association of Diving Instructors trips and rental equipment – prospective divers need to learn how to operate scuba gear properly. They typically do so by first practicing in a swimming pool.
“People don’t have to travel outside the City to do their pool lessons,” Mark said. “Because we own the pool, we can be more flexible about times and schedules. Bamboo Reef is still here because of that pool and Sal was able to ride out all of the various ups and downs in the economy.”
Owning a dive shop wasn’t Mark’s childhood dream. Brian fell in love with the sport. After graduating college in 2008 he studied at Hall’s Diving, a Florida-based diving institute. At the same time, he started working at Bamboo Reef as a sales representative and scuba instructor.
He went on to matriculate at Scuba Schools International (SSI), which teaches the skills involved in freediving, relying on breath-holding until resurfacing rather than the use of breathing apparatus. In 2012, Brian became a certified freediving instructor at Bamboo Reef. But he longed to do more than teach others.
Mark planned to retire from his job as a director of a microbiology lab at Kaiser Permanente, but he wanted to help launch Brian’s career. The two started looking for Bay Area dive shops to buy in 2013, contacting Nautilus Aquatics in Concord, but were turned down.
“We decided to approach Sal and see if he was willing to let go of the business,” Mark said. “We started the process in 2015 and came to an agreement in 2016. The idea is I will stay here for a little bit and then hand the reins to Brian, and then really retire.”
Mark may further delay his retirement. The retail landscape is changing, with online markets eating into sales, Bamboo Reef’s oxygen. The business continues to offer exotic diving trips and classes, but most of its income comes from selling equipment.
“Classes help, but no dive shop is going to survive on just teaching classes,” Mark said. “The magnitude of that challenge we didn’t appreciate until we got into business. We’ve had to adapt.”
Part of that adaption means eventually closing Bamboo Reef’s South-of-Market location. Bamboo Reef is one of the last retail businesses on its Fourth Street block. The store doesn’t have enough parking; it’s hard for customers to purchase equipment weighing 30 to 50 pounds and then walk a few blocks to their cars.
“The three years we’ve been here, we’ve seen a negative impact from that,” he said.
The Stanleys intend to relocate to Ocean Avenue in 2021. The new site will have an indoor pool, enabling them to expand swim lesson offerings.
“We plan to start a scuba ranger program for kids as young as eight to experience what it’s like to be under water and breathing on a tank,” Mark said.
Activities that simulate night diving will be part of the curriculum.
Mark said he’ll miss being in SoMa, a neighborhood that has a family feel.
“People will come by and say, ‘I’m just down the block.’ We didn’t get much drop-in business, but we do now because the neighborhood is changing,” he said. “The SoMa neighborhood has been great and we’re sorry that we’re going to have to move, but it’s the reality. We’re looking forward to the new location but it’s a double-edged sword because we also enjoy SoMa.”