NORTH WILDWOOD — At about 10 a.m., the scene at 1900 Bike Rental resembles a bustling train station with vacationers rolling out in rented surreys and bicycles or rolling in to drop them off after a morning ride.
“My mom calls it rush hour,” said Ed Masterson, owner of the shop and a lifelong island resident.
The pace is fitting, given the seasonal nature of the bike shop and other Boardwalk businesses that have a short span of time to make their money.
“We have less than 100 days to cover all the expenses,” Masterson said, listing the cost of renting a space on the Boardwalk, four employees, licenses and maintenance among his expenses.
“We’re not year-round. We’re not San Diego. We’re not Disneyland,” Masterson said.
The sentiment is echoed by other Boardwalk business owners, each challenged with making year-round profits on seasonal hours.
Cathie Behneman, owner of Rapunzel’s — a gift shop known to some as the sign store or country store — opens mid-March and closes in mid-November. Rapunzel’s is open only on weekends in the spring and fall.
Many of her goods — about 50 percent of which are made in the store by Behneman or her staff — have a more year-round use than beach chairs, but her business is still dependent on the vacation season.
“It’s expensive to do business here,” she said. “The Boardwalk rents are not inexpensive.”
Behneman has about four or five employees depending on the season, with family and friends helping out along the way.
“We work as many days as someone with a full-time job. We’re open 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week … and I’m here for most of them,” Behneman said.
The seasonal nature of running a shop on the Boardwalk, she said, means that owners have to contend with a number of unpredictable factors.
“When it’s gone, it’s gone. There is no next week,” she said, pointing to Hurricane Irene and the evacuation that preceded it as how a weekend’s losses cannot be recovered. “Once it’s done, that’s it.”
Behneman once traveled the country taking her fabric wreaths and baskets and other items to craft shows. Then, one season, she tried the Boardwalk and liked it.
The majority of her business is done in the evenings, she said, after visitors have spent their days on the Boardwalk.
“It’s tougher than owning a year-round business. If 200,000 are passing by, 20,000 might come in, 2,000 people will buy something and maybe 200 will buy something larger. So of that 200,000, I have 1 percent as a good sale,” she said.
To make up for some of the differences between year-round and seasonal, she also operates a website that sells the shop’s goods online.
“The website gives me gas and grocery money,” she said.
While the community isn’t year-round, it has its advantages, however, for traditional and very seasonal businesses like a bike rental shop.
“They want to do the same thing every year,” Masterson said of the visitors that make the Wildwoods an annual part of their lives. “They want to be remembered. They want to be recognized.”
Like many business owners here, Masterson and employees such as Debbie Hudson get to know the customers who came back year after year.
“You got three generations on one ride,” Hudson said as of one the shop’s surreys passed by carrying a smiling family.
But while familiarity is a bonus, the seasonal nature of businesses here also presents plenty of challenges.
Masterson pointed to the disappearance of many mom and pop motels, which were replaced by more self-contained condominiums, and changes in vacationing habits.
“This town was founded on three-day-weekend stays. People maybe rode the bikes everyday,” Masterson said, explaining visitors have to stretch their dollars more today by cutting back on things like daily bike rides.
“They start their day at 9 a.m. and you have to stretch your dollars to 11 p.m.,” he said.
Weather, key to any successful summer here, is also a challenge.
Ideal bike rental weather?
“We need cool weather, overcast. Heat is the enemy for us,” Hudson said. “You never know what might change it up.”
But despite the ups and downs and unpredictable nature of the Boardwalk, Masterson said he at least doesn’t have to advertise.
“It’s a tradition to ride the bikes on the Boardwalk,” he said. “You just put them out there.”
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