IT’S BEEN about 15 years since the Eckerd Drug Pharmacy on Ninth Street and Bay Avenue shut down. The building was purchased by the Gill family, well known by local boaters. Originally, there was not much of a long-term plan beyond using the building for storage, but the place clearly had potential.
They put a few beach chairs out front, and carloads of visitors streaming by coming off the Ninth Street Bridge began stopping and asking about them.
“The next thing you know, Island Beach Gear sprung out of necessity,” said Brent Burke, the store’s general manager for about seven years. There’s a new sign on the building now, and a line of brightly colored umbrellas, beach chairs, hammocks and more arranged on a sandy strip near the road, what Brent and other staff members refer to as their beach.
Step inside, and the place has been entirely transformed. Rather than tightly packed lines of aisles loaded with merchandise, the store offers a more spread-out experience. There is enough room around the displays to unfold a beach chair and try it out, or give one of the beach carts a test roll.
None of that was by accident, Brent said. As the retail landscape changes between local stores and e-commerce, he said, the Ninth Street location gives customers a chance to see the products up close and interact with them.
“There’s something to be said for being able to physically touch something and know that it speaks to you,” he said. Something may feel good in the hand or have a pleasing texture that would not be perceptible online.
The store also has an online component, at www.IslandBeachGear.com, which Brent indicated took off last year during the pandemic. Most in-person shopping was shut down just as Ocean City stores were beginning to get busy.
“Even though our brick-and-mortar store was closed, our web sales were through the roof,” Brent said. He added that those shopping online can reach out to the staff at the store with any questions or to get more information about any product.
“I think the thing that brings it together for us is customer service,” he said. “That’s what we’re about; getting a good fit.”
He described Island Beach Gear as part of a family business.
That includes the fishing-focused Tackle Direct in Egg Harbor Township and the 10th Street Wharf, one of the few marinas where you can fuel up. That’s for both boats and cars, Burke said, the only one in Ocean City that offers both.
The Gills long ran a marina in Ocean City when Patrick Gill, then a university student, had an idea for an online catalogue of fishing gear. They launched in 1998.
“Working with limited heat in a tiny bait and tackle shop over the water at the marina, Patrick and their first employee, Wayne Nicholson, built the first version of TackleDirect.com over winter break from college,” reads a description on the website. “TackleDirect now boasts over 60,000 products from more than 600 manufacturers shipping to over 200 countries internationally.”
No surprise, the Island Beach Gear location focuses on what you need for a day on the sand. The store stocks multiple versions of name-brand beach chairs, including the classic Telescope folding chairs that have stood at the Ocean City tideline forever. OK, for many decades at least.
The store offers multiple brands of chairs, and brand names for everything from shoes to coolers, with displays from Sperry, Yeti, Corkcicle and more.
“Our one characteristic is integrity for all products. We vet everything
thoroughly,” Brent said.
This summer, he predicts the hottest seller will be beach carts from Alumacart, which have aluminum construction and inflated wheels for the sand. He said they are made in Florida by expert welders in Hobe Sound and are built solid with a lifetime guarantee on the welds.
“Last year, they couldn’t keep up with demand,” he said. “This year, you can walk in and walk out with a beach cart.”
Another item Brent expects to be a big hit this summer is the Create A Castle sand toys. He described it as similar to a classic sandcastle mold, but more elaborate, calling it “next level.” Plus, the molds can be opened to remove from the castle. There are add-on features like LED lights.
“It works well in the snow, which is amazing,” he said. “The lights in the snow are really cool.”
The store is set to offer workshops on the product over the summer.
“Look for those dates. It will be posted on our website and social media pages on Facebook and Instagram.”
Brent described social media as the future of retail, adding that Island Beach Gear is doing more and more in that space. He’s looking to the future in other ways.
Brent trained as a naturalist. He is enthusiastic about some of the items that include an ecological benefit.
“We have some great products that really focus on conservation,” he said. Those include a company founded by Brenton Hutchinson to use plastic that would otherwise end up in the ocean to produce beach chairs. LowTides Ocean Products started in 2019, through a Kickstarter initiative.
“It’s an amazing process,” Brent said. “And he’s a New Jersey guy. I love that.”
Another company, 4Ocean, collects marine debris from oceans, rivers and coastlines and makes new products of recycled plastics. Brent gestures to one of their bracelets on his wrist while he described the effort.
They will also stock items from Toad Fish, including reusable drinkware, which is helping fund efforts to rebuild oyster habitat, including in local waters. Oysters are filter feeders, which means they clean the water they inhabit, while their hard shells also offer protection from erosion. According to the Toad Fish website, a single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water each day, helping create habitat where fish, crabs and other marine life can thrive.
The one thing that connects all of the customers and staff at the store is a love of the beach and ocean, Brent said. There is an appreciation of the natural beauty and the way the bays and ocean sustain people in many ways.
“I just can’t see my children’s children not having those opportunities,” he said.
Brent and Tarin Burke live just over the bay from Ocean City in Marmora. They have five children.
“Her maiden name is Allegretto. Her family is, like, five generations here in Ocean City and Upper Township,” Brent said.
During the interview, a cheerful black lab mix entered the store with her owners. The store is pet friendly, Brent added.
Check out the online edition of our May Magazine.