LIKE a benevolent monarch surveying his kingdom, Finlay sits on a colorful chair near the front of the Salty Seahorse at 714 Asbury Avenue.
The bright-eyed Westie seems entirely implacable until duty calls, and he must greet another customer.
“He’s the store mascot. He loves to come in the store. He gets so much attention almost every day,” said Susan Montagna, the owner of the store and the dog. “It’s so funny. People come in just to see Finlay.”
After a successful opening season in 2019, the dog and the store are back for 2020, with an eclectic offering of art, jewelry and colorful items for the home.
Susan and her creative partner Nancy Maniscalco have been making jewelry together for years, working primarily in sterling silver. They showed their work in The Flying Carp, a former Asbury story that also had a friendly resident dog named Zen. Eventually, Susan decided it was time for her to open her own place.
“This was my retirement dream. I’d been making jewelry with my best friend Nancy for 15 years,” she said.
Many of their pieces are in the Salty Seahorse, along with other work from Susan, including wall pieces fashioned from cork and art made from bottlecaps. A colorful fish includes pieces of cola cans, beer bottle caps and scales of aluminum pull tabs, joined together in a charming, whimsical whole.
Susan carries work from other artists, as well as pottery, paintings and glasses.
All of the pottery is from local artists, she said. About 70 percent of the store offerings are made by artisans.
“Of that, 75 percent is U.S. made,” she said. She has a couple of artists on display from Europe and Israel, she said, and other pieces have been imported under fair trade exchanges.
“I try to keep it artsy and unique,” she said.
On a summer morning, she took some time to talk about the store, seated in a small workshop in the back where she and Nancy still work on jewelry designs. They have some leaf-shaped earrings formed out of a faux leather, and Susan said she has worked with resins, but they still work primarily in metals. She showed off a new medium she’s been working with – metal clay. The clay-like material is made mostly of metal, in this case sterling silver. It can be molded and formed like clay, opening up a variety of possibilities.
“It gives me the opportunity to be more creative and do more interesting things,” she said. She has to work fast, because the material dries quickly and becomes brittle. Once the piece is completed, it will be fired in a jewelry kiln at an even 1,800 degrees for two hours. The clay material burns away, leaving a silver piece that is close to pure.
“You have to be careful because it’s all about how you fire it,” she said.
In the interview, she wore a small silver sand dollar, one of the pieces she created with the metal clay. While the material looks like pottery clay before the firing, once completed it has a high gloss shine of silver. She has also worked in copper with the same material.
“I can mold anything,” she said, obviously still enthused by the possibilities.
Before launching the store, she worked in software, and later worked as the software product manager for a major company, which required a great deal of travel. As with her jewelry designs, she said, she liked the challenges of working out solutions and creating something both practical and aesthetically pleasing while designing software.
“I found working in software to be very creative,” she said.
It was while she was in that career that she met her husband, the reason she is in Ocean City. Andrew Montagna’s family owned Dan’s Dock. He grew up in the family business. He later worked in Pennsylvania.
“I grew up in Drexel Hill, right outside of Philly. Then I was living in the West Chester area for the last, probably 30 years,” she said. She started playing tennis on the team of a company where a friend worked. Andrew worked for the same company, so tennis brought them together.
They had a property in Ocean City and eventually moved to the beach town, or in Andrew’s case, moved back, returning to a well-established network of family and friends.
“We don’t see any reason to go anywhere else. We love it here,” Susan said. Andrew worked in the family seafood business and sold sandwiches to the boaters, she said.
“He was the baby of the family, so he didn’t work a lot. He was Jet Skiing and surfing and all of those things,” she said. He still surfs, and goes out fishing with his brother Dan, the third generation Dan Montagna in the family.
Susan said she is enthused about being Downtown at a time when boutiques seem to be a growing part of Asbury Avenue.
“I think Asbury’s peaking right now, honestly. All these stores are full and they’re all really good and interesting,” she said. The restaurants are phenomenal, she added. “I love Asbury now. I think it’s exciting and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
She was worried coming into the summer of 2020, she said. She’s had one full summer in the store.
“It was a little stressful over the winter, trying to figure out how everything was going to work,” she said. She does not have years of experience in Ocean City retail to guide her. “Considering what’s going on in the world, I think we’re in a good place.”
She asks her customers to wear masks. The Downtown has been crowded this year. Susan said there seems to be more second homeowners using their properties and day trippers, and maybe fewer people renting or staying in hotels.
“The Downtown is packed,” she said.
There isn’t much of an origin story to the name Salty Seahorse. Susan said she designed the logo for the store, but she has not had a lifelong passion for seahorses.
“There’s no specific significance to the name other than it sounds cool,” she said. “When I decided to do the store, I sent a bunch of names out to some friends and said ‘help me.’ They all sent different combinations and Salty Seahorse is the one that stuck.”
After it was chosen, her nephew found a dried seahorse on the beach in perfect condition.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “I had it set into a candle ring for him. It was really cool. He loves to scour the beach. He finds a lot of beach glass for me.”
She tries to keep a nautical theme in the store, and asks the artists she works with to keep the beach in mind. Some customers are looking for items for the beach house, while others want to bring a piece of their vacation home, so she sees it as a good fit.
During the interview, a customer had a question about a piece of jewelry she created. She said the customers seem to like the chance to meet the artist. At times, artists have dropped items off at the store only to have someone buy their work while they were there. On her opening night, she had a reception with the artists who have work in the store, much of it on consignment.
She said she has many repeat customers who support the store, not only with their purchases but also recommending it to their friends and talking it up on Ocean City-focused social media pages.
“The customer group we have here is wonderful,” she said.