Shoobies and other shorebirds

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I spent the summer of 1982 in Ocean City, New Jersey, a beach resort 12 miles or so south of Atlantic City, as part of a Campus Crusade for Christ summer project with about 50 other college students. We spent our days working -- I was one of several who commuted to Atlantic City to work in a souvenir shop on the Boardwalk called Rainbow's End. It was one of nine or so in a chain run by a man named Ed Devlin, III, out of the flagship store, Irene's, in Ocean City. Most of the time, I was either inside trying to sell guilty gamblers some cheap inflatable airplanes to take home to their neglected children or out on the boardwalk making sure no one ran away with our selection of 99-cent cassettes and two-for-a-dollar LPs as the Ms. Pac-Man theme blared from the arcade next door. (The store was on the ground floor of what was then the steel skeleton that was intended to be the never-completed Penthouse Casino Resort and which ultimately became the Trump Plaza.)

(I spent two weeks trying unsuccessfully to find a job like the one I'd had the summer before, being paid to write computer programs. In 1982, no one in Ocean City seemed to have a computer that needed programming.)

But Ocean City itself was a delightful and relatively quiet beach resort. Intended as a resort for Methodists, it was a dry town that shut down on Sundays.

One of the things I took away from that summer was a new word: Shoobie. Ocean City had long been a popular summer getaway for Philadelphians and other tourists, who were dubbed "shoobies" by the locals. A recent article on the American Heritage website about Wildwood (another, wilder resort town further downshore) explains the origin of the term:

In Wildwood the locals have a term for tourists, shoobies. Derived from the habit of day-trippers' bringing their lunches to the shore in shoeboxes, a practice that probably started in 1889 when the Pennsylvania Railroad began running dollar excursions from Philadelphia, the epithet retains the behind-your-back scorn that distinguishes the love-hate relationship between any tourist town and its prey. (A teenage Wildwood native, ignorant of the etymology of the word but deeply familiar with its connotations, told me it came from the horrible habit of tourists wearing shoes on the beach. "That," she said, "is a very shoobie thing to do.")

Considering that the year-round population of the town numbers just 5,400, the shoobies, who swell the island's population to 250,000 during the height of summer, have always been the economic reason for Wildwood's existence. Originally a dense forest of tangled trees, Wildwood began its transformation from a wild wood to a smooth landscape of motels and sand in the 1880s. Local working-class and middle-class Philadelphians and neighboring New Jersey residents were drawn by the proximity and affordability, and soon the town was a popular destination. In 1927 more than 20,000 day-trippers came to visit the island over the course of just a few days. But these early shoobies were not well loved by local merchants. The thrifty shoebox-toting visitors were not staying in hotels or eating in restaurants, and, scandalously, they changed into their bathing suits in their cars, before dumping their picnic lunches all over the sand.

The article goes on to talk about the rise and decline of the seaside motel -- being replaced by condos -- and the demographic changes in the workforce that arrives to handle the summer crowds -- once blacks from the Deep South, now Eastern Europeans.

I hope that, just as Cape May has tried to preserve its Victorian seaside resort heritage, Wildwood will wake up and see the value and appeal of its mid-20th-century motels, cafes, and seaside amusements before they're all gone.

(Via Addled Writer, who went to Wildwood last month and took some pictures.)

UPDATE 2015/07/28: Corrected the above reference to Ed Devlin. Edward Aloysius Devlin Jr. was the owner of the original Irene's souvenir shop in Atlantic City, and who made headlines in 2010 because, in his teens, Ed Jr. worked for Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, the boss of Atlantic City and the basis for Steve Buscemi's character in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. My boss was his son, Edward A. Devlin III, the owner of Ocean Sales Co., which included Irene's and other stores in Ocean City, Rainbow's End in Atlantic City, and stores in Wildwood. In 1985, Ed III filed suit trying to overturn Ocean City's strict Sunday closing ordinance on the grounds that it conflicted with state law; the State Supreme Court upheld the city's ordinance.

What brought all this to mind? With Donald Trump much in the news, I thought of Vera Coking, the woman who refused to sell her three-story boarding house, first to Bob Guccione and later to Donald Trump. Guccione built the steel frame of his planned casino building around her property and two other holdouts, including Sabatini's Restaurant on the corner of Columbia Pl and Pacific Ave. In 1993, Trump demolished the rusty steel frame (and damaged Coking's place in the process) for surface parking, and converted the old Holiday Inn tower into the east tower of the Trump Plaza hotel. Trump tried to use eminent domain to force Coking to sell, but Coking, represented by the Institute for Justice, beat Trump in court. In 2010, Coking decided to move west to be nearer her family, and last summer the property was sold at auction for $583,000, and then was demolished in November 2014 -- some 35 years after it was first targeted.

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3 Comments

Oh, that brings back some fun memories--we took the kids to Ocean City about five years ago. It was one of our best vacations ever. Love that place!

Amanda R. said:

Hi, I see that you were in ocean city in 1982. I have been on a search to find the name of an arcade on the boardwalk, corner of 8th street that existed in 1982. Is there any chance you remember this arcade & the name of it? Thank you.

I don't remember the arcade's name, but, as it was at the end of the street I lived on, I probably played some games of Centipede there.

Irene's and Rainbow's End souvenir shops were at that corner, both owned by Ed Devlin. I believe Irene's was on the northwest corner and Rainbow's End was south of the southwest corner. The back of the latter store was his warehouse -- those of us who worked at Rainbow's End in Atlantic City would drive the company van back in the afternoons, then gather items to restock the shelves the next day.

For an answer to your question, I suggest calling the Ocean City library or the historical society and ask if they have a city directory, street directory, or criss-cross directory for that year or a year close to it. These directories list businesses and residents by street in numerical order, so it's a great way to find out what was where at a given point in time.

Here's what that Ocean City block (looking south from 8th on the Boardwalk) looked like in 1908.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 9, 2007 11:23 PM.

Stranger on shore sleepwalks through wonderland by night was the previous entry in this blog.

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