Jim Steele pretty much grew up in the dive shop he currently owns. He still spends most of his time either in the shop, or doing something related to diving, like guiding a class underwater to see the kelp forests and sea life in the Monterey Bay.
“You never get bored because there are so many activities you can do underwater,” he said. “Spear fishing, getting abalone, photography, there’s lots of stuff to do when you dive.”
Steele is the owner of Steele’s Discount Scuba, a dive shop on Telegraph and 60th Street in North Oakland, which first opened in 1939 as a sporting goods store, when it was owned by Steele’s father, Howard. Steele’s became a dive shop when it moved from College Avenue to its current location in 1958, and ever since has served as one of the few places around to rent or buy diving equipment, like wet suits, tanks and regulators, or take classes for different classes of certification. Steele teaches many of the shop’s certification courses, which are mostly for beginners and recreational divers.
Steele is 62 years old, with the medium-length gray hair and easy-going demeanor of an aging surfer. Steele has been around to see diving take off as a sport, moving from a strictly professional activity to one of recreation, and flourish in the Bay Area. The wetsuit, for example, has evolved from its humble beginnings. Back when the shop opened, Steele’s father, Howard, would host a “wetsuit night” where a customer could buy a piece of rubber to stitch their own suit.
“Then they started putting nylon on the suits, making them stronger,” he said. “They started stitching them together so we wouldn’t have to glue them. Then they put nylon on both sides so they would hold up longer.”
“Now we’re putting seals on them, and softer rubber under the arms and stiffer rubber through the torso, so it doesn’t compress when you go down” in the water, Steele continued. “And there’s a lot of insulation.”
He’s got examples of old and new equipment scattered around the shop—old oxygen tanks that look like little silver missals, and brand new state-of-the-art jet-black masks made of liquid skin silicone that presses right up to a diver’s face. Rental gear—stacks of wetsuits, regulators and vests—are scattered around the shop, and there’s small room in the front that Steele uses to teach classes at night and tinker with equipment during the day.
Howard Steele first opened Steele’s as a golf store on College Avenue, where there’s now a Dreyer’s Ice Cream store. A few years later, it became a more generalized sporting goods store. In those days, Jim used to walk back to the store from Chabot Elementary School in the afternoon to help out in the back fixing equipment.
For Steele, growing up in a dive store was akin to growing up in a toy store. At age 5, he’d started learning how to use the dive equipment in swimming pools. “I used to get to try out new equipment in the pool, like single hose regulator and underwater scooter,” he said. “It was a great childhood.” Every year, he would fly down to LA with his dad to talk to engineers about new equipment being designed, and try out all the latest gadgets in the shop.
More than the shop, though, Steele fell in love with the unique experience of diving. “The feeling of being under water is incredible,” he said. “The weightlessness and being able to go wherever you want. There’s nothing like it.”
Steele continued to work at the shop through his years at Oakland Tech, Laney College and UC Berkeley. He was a military studies major in college, he said, “because it was an easy way to get into Cal and it enabled me to shoot on the rifle team.” He was also teaching diving classes, something he’d been doing since he was a teenager, taking schools of students from the Richmond, Berkeley or Oakland YMCAs out to Monterey for certification dives.
After a stint in the Army reserves in Fort Bliss, Texas, Steele returned to the Bay Area in the early 70s and opened his own dive shop in Santa Clara. He called it “Steele’s.” In the 80s, he opened up other “Steele’s” locations in Northern California—Hayward, Petaluma, Sacramento and Santa Cruz. “We were doing really well, and I thought, ‘Why not?’” he recalled.
Though he was selling a lot of gear at the shops, Steele said he was spending most of his time in the back of the shop doing paperwork— “pushing paper and personnel,” he called it. He hated it, and tired of the hiring and business procedures he had to follow. In the mid-90s, he decided to retire and close all the shops but the one on Telegraph. He said he didn’t want to deal with the hassle of trying to sell the shops, and wanted the option to reopen them in the future if he changed his mind. “I’m 62,” he said with a grin. “I do what I want.”
Now Steele spends a lot of his time telling people who come into the shop about the pleasures of diving in California. He doesn’t like that the dive industry is focused on promoting “dive travel” he said, the idea that you have to pack a suitcase and head to a tropical location in order to enjoy the sport. Instead, Steele encourages divers to check out local dive spots like Point Lobos, just south of Carmel, and Fort Ross up north. He’s been to Florida Keys and Palau, but still says nothing compares to California.
“California has much more going for it,” he said. “We have abalone, we’ve got big fish, camping in the Coastal Redwoods, Fort Bragg. I mean, how good could that be?”