Discover more from North Carolina Rabbit Hole
Shibumi Shades were invented and made here in North Carolina, and they're all over our beaches this summer. Why?
Back in the glory days of Deadspin, the writers there had a rule they called Slack Law. If a topic came up in a Slack chatroom, and people spent a significant amount of time blabbering on about it, someone could invoke Slack Law, and then a writer would actually have to blog about that topic. (Here’s a full explainer, one that invokes Raleigh’s own Holderness family in a not-so-nice way!) I say this because recently, I have been talking about the Shibumi Shade quite a bit on Twitter, which effectively functions as Slack for Extremely Online freelancers. The last time I invoked this version of Slack Law on myself, I was droning on about making I-277 a River. Now, I keep finding myself talking a bit too much about a polyester beach shade. I must write about it now. I must obey the decree.
One of my dad duties at the beach is to go out before anyone else in the family, pick out a spot, and set up a canopy as if I were planting a flag in this new land for the crown. When my in-laws first bought a place in Carolina Beach a decade ago, all we had was a few beach chairs and an umbrella. Folks, I know that the beach umbrella is an iconic totem of a coastal Carolina summer. I would, however, like to offer this counterpoint: beach umbrellas blow. Literally. Forget the fact that they cast, maybe, 5 square feet of shade over the burning hot sand. The bigger issue: every weekend, one inevitably gets loose and tumbles down the beach, threatening to impale a tiny doe-eyed child or a Styrofoam beer cooler. I’ve chased down several tumbling umbrellas myself, always having to say sorry to people who are clearly pissed that I, a Luddite, have chosen to unleash a Bronze Age parasol weapon upon this peaceful place. “It’s cool,” they’d always tell me, with violence in their eyes.
My in-laws went out and bought a pop-up canopy after that, which worked much better, but was big and heavy and glided across the sand with the grace of a coal barge. Inevitably, the wind would shred it and sand would get into the metal supports, making the whole thing screech in pain when I tried to collapse it. After a few months, it would end up in the trash can on the beach, usually mashed in there with another junked canopy. I think — no joke — so many people were throwing them out that Carolina Beach got rid of its beach trash cans altogether. They’ve now put up “Pack it in, pack it out” signs, encouraging you to embrace your inner backpacker after five White Claws and six hours of direct sunlight.
A few years back, we went with an Otentik sunshade, which is basically a large square piece of fabric with sandbags attached to each corner with nylon rope. You fill the bags. Then you pop two metal poles up to catch the wind. This worked really well, but then, we started noticing the Shibumi Shades. Quite simply, they’re a large piece of fabric attached to a really long tent pole, and anchored by a sandbag in the front. You aim it into the wind. It provides enough shade for six people. It weighs all of four pounds.
A few years back, there were only a handful of Shades on the beach. Today, there are dozens, sometimes hundreds of them out there. They’re so ubiquitous that people are using them to try and get TikTok engagement:
The Shibumi Shade’s story’s been told a bunch of times, but it’s basically this: Two brothers and their best friend had the same job as I did when their families on vacation to Emerald Isle. They, too, got tired of hauling a bigass pop-up tent down to the beach. Unlike me, though, they decided to do something about it, and created a prototype shade with some PVC pipe and fabric. It worked because, unlike every other design, it embraces the wind instead of fighting it. They went out, formed a company, got a patent, and started selling them. In 2017, they sold 178. The next year, they sold 2,000. After that, they were bent on world domination.
Despite their rapid growth, the three guys still managed to keep their whole operation in North Carolina.The fabric is sewn at a factory in Asheboro. Their office is in one of the brothers’ houses in Raleigh. The name refers to the elegance of simplicity in Japanese, but it’s really a nod to the Shibumi Apartments in Chapel Hill, where they all lived while they were students at UNC. (Fun coincidence: My wife also lived in Shibumi for a year.)
Fast forward to today. PEOPLE ARE OUT HERE MAKING SHIBUMI SHADE CENTIPEDES:
I wondered what was responsible for their success. After all, a good idea and a patent doesn’t guarantee that a thing that will sell. They did get some good press a few years ago, but I don’t ever see ads for Shibumi Shades. However, a look at the Google Search trends for “Shibumi Shade” explains a lot:
The searches peaked the week after the July 4th weekend in 2020, and a lot of the searches come from coastal North Carolina. My interpretation: Everybody saw them on the beaches down here, asked “what you got there?” and then immediately Googled them when they got back to the house. It also helps that Shibumi Shades come in exactly one style: teal and blue. The founders have said that they only offer one option because it makes their manufacturing process easier, but its also means there’s no mistaking what it is.
There’s also no mistaking the price: $250 (A price that provides more TikTok fodder!) Seems steep, but then again, when you’ve got a patent, a good design, great word of mouth, and bottomless demand, you can charge whatever you want.
I’m typically a cynical consumer who hates to spend money on anything, and when I’m about to lay out money for something expensive, I typically vet a company or product by typing its name into Google, followed by the word “sucks.” From what I’ve discovered, though, everybody seems to luuuuurve the Shibumi Shade. I can see why. It works! Really well! Better than almost anything else out there! The only complaints I’ve seen have mostly to do with the fact that the flapping polyester can be very loud in heavy winds. I have no idea if anyone rode out Elsa this week parked under a Shade with a decibel meter. If you did, please contact me.
In fact, it seems like the only folks who don’t like the Shibumi Shades are the people who run Ocean Isle Beach. That town has banned all canopies larger than an umbrella, but the town website specifically calls out the Shibumi Shade. Put one up, they say, and we’ll give you a $25 fine. In response, the Shibumi folks are politely asking their legions of fans to contact Ocean Isle Beach to gently urge them to reconsider. (Note to self: File an Open Records Act request for town emails pertaining to Shibumi Shades next week.)
UPDATE: The town of Ocean Isle Beach finally relented and allowed Shibumi Shades in July 2021, shortly after this story was originally published.
My in-laws finally broke down and bought a Shade for themselves, and we all like it thus far. In fact, there is only one situation where it doesn’t work: The rare occasion when the winds are calm on the beach. Like they were this weekend. My wife and I set up camp under the Shade, and had it hang comically in our faces, draped over our noses as we tried to watch the kids. So, what do you say when your Shade goes limp? I don’t know what’s wrong baby! I swear this has never happened before!
A postscript: One of my tweets about the Shibumi Shade elicited a reply about proper beach etiquette:
I am originally from Ohio, and the only beach near me was a muddy goose poopscape at the southern end of a lake known officially as Mosquito Creek Reservoir. So, even though I’ve been a North Carolinian for 16 years, I do not know all of the unwritten beach rules. Hence, I think it’d be a good writing prompt for this week. Please email, comment, or tweet at me with your favorite or most egregouis breaches of Southern Beach Decorum. Since Northerners love to tell you how to drive in snow, feel free to tell them how to beach.
Since this story was originally published, the company has expanded and now has its shades sewn at three facilities: Two in North Carolina and one in Virginia.