Co-op stores

Kerrin O'Neill of Ventnor, left, general manager, and Arlene Zizza, right owner of Vintage Styles within Stainton's: A Gallery of Shops in Ocean City.

The economic slump since 2008 has encouraged retailers to share space, much the way it has motivated people to live together.

In the past several years, large and small retail cooperatives — or co-op stores for short — have sprung up in South Jersey.

What was mainly the business practice of small-scale antique dealers has spread to the sale of new merchandise as well, with large co-op stores established from Ocean City to West Cape May and small ones in many towns.

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The Marketplace at Teaberry, in the Clermont section of Dennis Township, made the transition from antiques to new goods as well a few years after opening in 2006. It’s rebranding slogan: “Teaberry … Not Just Antiques.”

The cooperative pioneer in the region was the West End Garage in Cape May and its co-op within a co-op, the Cape May Artists’ Cooperative Gallery.

The artists got together in 2008 — there are 20 of them now, juried for membership just like an art show — and the next year the whole space opened to vendors of new and vintage clothing, gifts, jewelry and more. There are 49 separate stores in all now.

The West End Garage is the creation of the forward-thinking Cape Resorts Group, whose many properties include Congress Hall, the Virginia and Beach Shack hotels, Sandpiper Beach Club and several restaurants in Cape May, as well as the Chelsea hotel in Atlantic City.

“We have a great marketing team and public relations team,” said Wendy Guiles, general manager of the West End Garage.

Guiles, of Cape May, said it’s easier to find lots of small shops than a couple of large retailers in the challenging economy since the recession, a view shared by all co-op owners and managers.

“If a retailer takes space on the Cape May Mall, it will cost them four times as much and require them to man the store full time,” she said.

A similar calculation led to the Stainton’s: A Gallery of Shops cooperative in Ocean City.

General manager Kerrin O’Neill said that when the owners — Lester Argus, and Brett and Nicole Foxman, all of Margate — bought the property, it hosted separate retailers within the former department store space.

In 2012, they converted it to a co-op store, and today it hosts about 65 vendors, said O’Neill, of Ventnor. “An advantage for us is they bring in their own merchandise, so we don’t do inventory or stocking.”

The variety of things available surprises shoppers, with shore decoratives and clothing alongside mini-stores dedicated to chocolate-covered pretzels and Kentucky Derby goods.

“It’s a great opportunity for vendors because they have a small rental fee for the booth, not as big a fee as for a store, and they don’t have to pay staff, utilities, cleaning or insurance,” she said.

The sharing of space typically also extends to the staff at co-ops, with vendors providing supplemental help as part of their space agreement.

Stainton’s has seven employees and staffs the large checkout serving all of the vendors, O’Neill said.

Each vendor is required to work a six-hour shift once a month as an “ambassador,” answering customer questions, keeping an eye on the floor, bagging merchandise if needed, she said.

 At the West End Garage, the arrangement only differs slightly, with vendors required to work for the owner/operator up to 16 hours a month, Guiles said.

She said she has an assistant and one or two employees seasonally, and two to four vendors supplementing the staff at any given time. The deal works well for vendors.

“One vendor has a store in Point Pleasant (Ocean County) and works there full time and comes here once a week to restock,” Guiles said. “They only have to worry about keeping their space looking good, stocked and clean.”

Such a vendor with a regular store elsewhere is desirable for co-op managers. “I like vendors who do have a little retail experience,” she said.

O’Neill said having an established store elsewhere works well for co-op and vendor.

“The vendors who really appreciate the relationship are the ones who have an existing store,” she said. “For example, the Cricket Box has been down the street for 30 years. They know the expense of keeping up a store.”

Having the right vendors also is important to small co-op stores such as Shoreline Vintage in the Richland section of Buena Vista Township.

Owner Donna Hensel, of Buena, said she looks for sellers who offer something that differs from existing vendors, and who will fit into what is a more social version of retail.

“I’m very careful about getting people in who will work well together,” Hensel said. “It’s so important to have people who are harmonious, polite and agreeable. I’ve been in places where that hasn’t been the case.”

She said Shoreline Vintage has done well since starting in 2011. “The nice thing is the people we work with. Everybody’s delightful and doing well.”

Her co-op lets her pursue one of her pet projects: seeing women’s handiworks preserved and valued. She also has added free monthly antique appraisals to the store’s offerings.

The success of this wave of cooperative retailers has encouraged others to start up or include the concept in their existing store.

On Somers Point-Mays Landing Road in Hamilton Township, RoseMary’s Attic has opened this year.

In Ocean City, the longtime Alma Taylor store has been remodeled and renamed Gatherings on Asbury, with six spaces for specialty vendors.

O’Neill said Stainton’s: A Gallery of Shops did very well last year until “a little setback from the hurricane.”

“Summer exceeded our expectations, and we’re looking forward to a great holiday season as well,” she said.

Contact Kevin Post:


Been working with the Press for about 27 years.

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