CAPE MAY - The West End Garage, an eclectic collection of 50 small stores under one roof, began as the kind of almost accidental, serendipitous success so many business people wish for.
The large building on West Perry Street, where Cape May's extended shopping center meets its West Cape May counterpart, was intended to be the headquarters of Cape Resorts Group, which operates luxury hotels here, in Atlantic City and soon in Sag Harbor, N.Y.
But when the economy went into recession, "the company decided not to overextend and turned the building into this great retail space," said General Manager Wendy Guiles.
Its nearly 7,000 square feet on one floor with a very high ceiling has about 4,500 square feet of rentable space, filled with antiques, collectibles, art, surprising niche offerings, and new retail goods such as clothing, jewelry and home items.
"People can get lost in here, and they often do," said Guiles, of West Cape May. "We lose people for hours, especially on a rainy day."
Now, after five years of growth, the West End Garage is making its first big changes, renovating and rearranging from front to back, adding some appealingly different shops.
The catalyst for the changes was the decision by Cape May Artists Cooperative members to move out in January to their own building in West Cape May with enough space for classes and such.
The redesigned front of the business features a new space for Circa Dee, a shop that offers vintage d�cor and design with the kitchen-farm flair of owner and horticulturalist Dana Reca.
Reca said the natural light and added room allows her to offer "a boutique line of live plants for hostess gifts and such."
"We've got a mix of products - vintage furniture, such as a turn-of-the-century farm table, and American-made products for home and garden," she said.
Reca said she started as an antiques dealer in eastern Pennsylvania, adding a shop in the West End Garage in 2012.
She fell in love with the setting and the town, got married here last year and has moved to the area.
"This is a flagship location for me," Reca said. "It's a great place because there is such a diverse mix of shops."
A new booth has locally crafted artisan jewelry - with Pat Jackson, Janet Payne and Phil and Eliza Deitz among the seven exhibiting.
Another new booth sells packaged gourmet foods such as olive oil, peanut butter, and coffees and teas, Guiles said.
The antique shops have country primitives and the Victorian pieces you'd expect in this capital of Victorian architecture and style. But they also do a brisk trade in mid-century modern furniture, she said.
"Midcentury modern is popular in the cities right now and can be had here very reasonably. City visitors get very excited to find it and rent trucks to take it back with them," Guiles said.
Plenty of artists stayed with West End Garage, including leatherworks artist/historian John Bailey, who also does watercolors now; consummate bird and wildlife artist Louise Zemaitis and her Swallowtail Studios; and Madd Potters Amanda V. Leipert and Julie Hickman.
Guiles said the store is organized like a cooperative, with the 62 vendors working on a rotating basis. Cape Resorts Group charges a fee for space and a commission, and handles the checkout and common expenses.
"It's a great way for someone who wants to dive into retail but doesn't have all of the time it takes," she said. "It's a great way to see if they really like it."
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West End Garage
Location: 484 W. Perry St., Cape May
Owner: Cape Resorts Group, of Cape May and New York
General manager: Wendy Guiles, of West Cape May
Employees: 1 to 4 seasonally