The Essential Shore: The Sultan of Souvenirs

What good is a trip to the Shore without a pirate-head coconut to remember it by?

It’s a rainy April Thursday, and I’m at the beach. I’ve trekked from the city to presently sleepy Stone Harbor, to meet him — the king of kitsch, the numero uno of novelty, the foreman of the flip-flop, the boss of the beach chair. David Hoy, 53, with sky-blue eyes and gracefully gray hair, is the heir to the Shore-store empire Hoy’s 5 & 10. And he’s shuffling in the spotlight.

Well, sort of. He’s actually giving me a tour through aisle after aisle of sunscreen, boogie boards, water guns, volleyballs, coolers, t-shirts, straw hats, key chains, shark-tooth necklaces, nautical housewares, candles in coconut shells. But when I ask him the big questions — What’s it like running a landmark? How did Hoy’s carve its beach fiefdom? — he’s deflecting the attention. He’s talking up his enthusiastic store managers. He’s being, well, modest.

So we keep touring. And soon we’re laughing. David realizes that some of the stuff he sells is downright ridiculous. “When I see something really bizarre, I’ve got to buy it,” he says, pointing to a pirate head carved on a coconut, complete with gold hoop earring. “There are lots of things that my employees look at and ask what the heck I was thinking.” Like this small wonder, perhaps: It’s a six-inch tall glass egg. Inside, suspended, nearly lifelike, is a spooky purple jellyfish.

“Oh, that one’s a real gem!” an employee scoffs from the back, overhearing us. (The tentacled magnificence can be yours for just $10.99.)

Then there are the decorative signs and their sage proclamations: “Old fisherman never die, they just smell that way.” “We don’t skinny dip. We chunky dunk.” “Relax! You’re at the beach.” This last one causes David to ponder: “You know you’re at the beach. Why you need to have a sign telling you that, I don’t know.”

But make no mistake, there’s a buyer for every last trinket. “We have the world’s greatest impulse shoppers,” explains Patrick Antona, manager of Hoy’s Stone Harbor store. And down here at the Jersey Shore, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, maybe even the world, kitsch sells.

“MOM, CHARLIE, AUNT BARBARA, Uncle Bob, Julie, Laura, Kim, Rachel … that’s eight,” I remember counting to my dad, who patiently waited as I perused every single store on the Wildwood boards for souvenirs. I was only 10, but I had an obligation to bring back something for the unlucky souls who weren’t here, in the sun, on the beach, down the Shore. When I packed up to go home, my bags wouldn’t close, so stuffed were they with key chains and mugs and visors and shorts that said BEACH BABE on the butt. There’s just something about this place that made me — makes us — do it.

David Hoy understands. Back in Stone Harbor, we talk the classics, the year-in, year-out standbys. There are, of course, the traditional souvenirs: Two different sizes of monogrammed flip-flop key chains. Revolving tiers of necklaces, anklets, toe rings. “You could sell just mugs till you die,” says Patrick. Shirts, hats, picture frames, many emblazoned with “Stone Harbor, NJ” (but most, naturally, made in China). There are practicalities: beach chairs, sunscreen, even hardware and cleaning supplies. (“But who wants to buy a broom on vacation?” David laughs.) There’s an entire array of flatulence devices — whoopee cushions, pens that make fart noises, a remote-control fart machine for embarrassing unsuspecting grandparents. And of course, there are the Jersey Shore hermit crabs, which come to Hoy’s the way all Jersey Shore hermit crabs do — from the Gulf Coast, via UPS.

Then there are the hits, those glorious golden calves that for one fleeting summer or another just won’t stay on the shelves. Most of them have nothing to do with the seashore — except for this: When you’re here, you actually let the kids buy this junk, because it’s too hard to say no when you’re feeling so Shore-lovin’ good. In years past, there were the POGs, the Tamagotchis, the laser pointers, the Pokémon cards, the singing hamsters. This year, it’s Webkinz — stuffed animals with codes that unlock play in an online Webkinz world.

The hits, though, are always less interesting than what David calls “the bombs.”

“Here are our mistakes,” he announces, strangely proud, as we walk past the 75-percent-off section. I’m surveying the ­losers — a wind chime of clanking orange slices, a fisherman Christmas ornament, lighthouse statuettes, a figurine of a dolphin in a coconut-shell bikini top — when a woman interrupts us, seeing me taking notes. “Don’t tell everyone about this section,” she beseeches. “We use this stuff as prizes in our summer scavenger hunt. The kids go nuts for this junk!”

David smiles.

“Well, the hula hoop was phenomenal,” remembers Hoy’s toy department head John Paul Garniewski, 80, when he’s asked about top sellers of yesteryear. John Paul has been with Hoy’s since 1940, when he worked as a stock boy during the war. He remembers David’s grandfather, Bernard Joseph Hoy, who launched the business in 1935 after learning the trade from years with Woolworth’s. During the reign of William Hoy, David’s uncle, in the 1960s, there were 18 stores across the region. But the rise of department stores put many of the inland Hoy’s (and most other five-and-dimes) out of business. Looking to get out of the trade, William sold the Jersey stores to his brother, David’s father Bernard Jr. When Bernard died in 1979, David took the reins. And there’s a good chance the stores will be passed down again: David and his wife Jane, whom he met — of course — while they both were working at Hoy’s, have six children. “I think we’ve got a pretty good shot at it,” he says.

Today, there are only four Hoy’s 5 & 10 stores — Avalon, Stone Harbor, and two in Ocean City. The stores adapted to be more Shore-oriented, and now boast the biggest selection of beach goods in the area. Physically, they don’t much resemble the old stores, except for the traditional red-and-yellow signage that David has carried on. And though there’s not a lot going for five cents, a dime will get you a mini peppermint patty or piece of Bazooka. There are still young kids working the floors. It seems almost a rite of passage for area kids to work at a Hoy’s — in Stone Harbor, Patrick has a waiting list of more than 100 looking to join the tradition. And David and Jane aren’t the only one’s who’ve married. “It was a huge part of my life,” says Leslie Gimeno, who met her husband Sean when they were both working at Hoy’s. “We all worked together all day and hung out every night. I can still remember the smell in the store. I think it’s from the flip-flops.”

And just as Hoy after Hoy has handed down the company, customers have handed down the tradition of shopping at Hoy’s. They’re coming in to try on the funny hats, like the shark with his mouth agape over the place where you put your head. They’re testing out the whoopee cushions. If it’s raining, they’re buying puzzles. They chat with staff about the year that’s passed since their last visit. A few inches taller now, their children rush by en route to the toy aisle.

Today, as the Hoy’s staffers unpack boxes and gear up for the three-month-long summer hustle, they can’t wait for the crowds to get here. But by the end of August, well, let’s just say they sing the love song a little more softly: “People come in with their kids, and they all have to tell us about their memories of the store from when they were kids,” says Barbara. “By Labor Day, I think we’re ready to see them go.”

WHEN I ASK David if I can buy him lunch, he tries to insist that he should buy mine, then heads us around the corner to Ready’s Coffee Shop, where to our surprise, and from a voluminous list, we order the same modest $5 meal: Turkey club. No tomato. Mayonnaise, yes please. “It’s a real Ocean City kind of place,” he explains. Old-world charm. Prices that don’t break the bank. Real ­human beings behind the cash register and handing you the menu with a “Here ya go, hon.”

Over turkey clubs, I ask him if the business has been lucrative. Gentleman that he is, he refrains from giving figures, but alludes to how he does live in upscale Stone Harbor, sends his kids to a great school, and just went on a cruise with his wife and all six of them. And every year is better than the last. So, yeah, there’s a pretty nice life to be made selling sunscreen.

And knickknacks and shark hats. But why do we buy them? Sure, it’s part consumerism. We’re Americans, and a trip’s just not a trip unless we’ve brought back some, ya know, “stuff.” Couple that with Shore-induced euphoria, and restraint is nearly impossible. Besides, you could presumably (gasp!) forget your entire vacation at the Shore (never mind the 500 photos you’ve taken) unless you buy a frame that says “Ocean City, NJ” for that especially perfect shot. And when you put that picture on your desk or, God forbid, that jellyfish in the glass egg on your shelf, it’s a talisman — something to keep you going through the winter. Something to look back on and forward to.

And it’s part and parcel of the experience that Hoy’s and Ready’s and the Shore are selling — a piece of our youth. Down the Shore, we want Mayberry. We’re hungry for the good ol’ days. When we need socks on our lunch break, we head to the local Target, but down the Shore, with our family by our side and our toes in the sand — and without the time-is-money crunch — ­lingering is ­required. Which may be the answer to the tough questions I first posed to unassuming David Hoy, the baron of the beach towel: At Hoy’s, and not so many other places these days, nostalgia can still be had. Though you might want to bring more than five or 10 cents.

Comments on this story? Please send them to us.