Walking into the modestly sized North Beach Gallery and Gift at 5209 Atlantic Ave. in Ventnor, owner Kimberly Foulkes-Romantino sits just feet from the propped-open front entrance, ready to welcome anyone into her store.
"I want to make it a home away from home," she said, with blue acrylic paint residue still on her fingertips. She said she only paints informally, showing off an ocean-themed piece she was working on.
But Foulkes-Romantino, who has lived in Margate since the early 1990s, is not trying to create a place to exhibit her own work. She is attempting to create a haven for members of the community.
"You have so many local artists - between the authors and the artists and the musicians - I would like to combine everything," she said.
Foulkes-Romantino opened her gallery in Ventnor on Sept. 21, just more than a month before Hurricane Sandy hit. Although the store only suffered from damp carpets - she had packed up the artwork to keep it high and dry - her own residence in Margate was damaged, distracting her from the gallery that she was so eager to begin building up.
"It was about two to three weeks before I could even get back into the shop again," she said.
On a recent Thursday night, however, North Beach Gallery and Gift was fully operational, with fresh coffee brewing and local artwork filling its walls and shelves.
Thursday has become the established open-mic night at the gallery gift shop, she said.
The back is occupied by small gifts, from beaded jewelry to handmade magnets - all available for sale. The front, with its leather couches and open space, becomes the weekly stage for Foulkes-Romantino's regulars and some occasional new faces.
Regulars John Gallagher, Jarek Zukowski and Keith Chapman, all originally of Brigantine, stop by North Beach Gallery weekly, they said. The shop is close to their new Ventnor and Margate residences.
Gallagher, 24, and Zukowski, 25, tested out rhymes that night, rapping new material that they will soon record with their unnamed hip-hop group, they said.
"It's in the process of production," Zukowski said of his work. "I'd say it's influential poetry."
Musicians, spoken-word artists, comedians, rappers, even mentalists often take advantage of the nonjudgmental atmosphere to perform, said Foulkes-Romantino, who also promotes local music on the side.
She said the open-mic nights often become free-flowing jam sessions for the musicians. Urethra Franklin, of Rio Grande, Position 9, of the Ventnor-Atlantic City area, and The Only Way, of Linwood, are among the musical acts that come to play her spot, she said.
Foulkes-Romantino, who began her career in modeling and talent scouting in Florida, hopes that the artistry in the Ventnor area will continue. A screenwriting friend frequently uses her back room to write. "He feels his ideas flow when he comes here," she said.
Books, some dating from the 1850s, sit on shelves. A chess set sits waiting to be played, and baked goods are almost always available, she said.
Beginning Monday, she hopes to hold her first Women for Women meeting, a support group for any female in need of healing, she added, hoping to include guest speakers and sessions on relieving stress.
Yet the owner can't take all the credit for opening the shop on her own. Next-door neighbor Malelani's Cafe owner George Drakopoulos has been instrumental in her new business.
"He actually told me when the store was available," she said of her friend.
Performers and visitors often flow between her location and the cafe - an emerging hotspot for the arts in Ventnor, Foulkes-Romantino said.
She hopes that once the summer months arrive, the two will function as perfect complements, helping to build up a more prominent art community in the Atlantic City and Downbeach areas.
Foulkes-Romantino and her friend and featured artist Steve Thonus, of Ventnor, recently discussed the future of the arts in Ventnor.
Foulkes-Romantino mentioned that she would love to see her gallery expand to be more of a center to include art classes, adding that she hopes the whole block will soon transform, including its side streets.
"I know it's coming," she said of a potential art scene. "I'm lucky to be on the ground floor."
North Beach Gallery and Gift is open 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday and Wednesday and 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. By Memorial Day, Foulkes-Romantino hopes to be open every day for summer hours.
For more information, call 609-214-3994 or find them on Facebook at northbeach
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