Cris Noreen knows his beach tags. He's been in the business of buying and selling them since 1999, when he started a website called beachtags.com.
Noreen, of Northfield, now owns a few versions of that domain name, and his business has changed since he opened it way back in that long-ago century.
Then, he was planning to buy and sell new beach tags - buy them from local beach towns and sell them, at a slight markup, to people who would order them on his site.
But when legal complications stopped him from doing that, Noreen switched strategies. He got into buying and selling used tags - the older, the better, in fact.
Still, even a guy who knows there's a niche market online for old beach tags was shocked recently by something he saw on eBay - a 1971 Stone Harbor tag priced at $2,750.
"Stone Harbor is very hot right now," says Noreen, a computer analyst in his day job - and a former Atlantic City bartender and owner of the Circuit Cafe, a Ventnor restaurant - who says he saw another old tag from the town going for $1,800 on eBay.
He knows those are exceptional, extreme examples of how high the price of a little piece of plastic on a safety pin can go. A more common price tag for old tags on Noreen's own site runs from $10 to $35 or so. But that's for an item that, by conventional wisdom, should have a value of exactly $0 each year as soon as Labor Day comes along and beach-tag checkers - or tag nags, as some call them - knock off for the year.
So even now, after Hurricane Sandy gave many of us in local beach towns something other than beach-tag-collecting to keep us busy, this veteran of the market advises us all to consider holding onto our used tags.
"At the end of the season is when most people just chuck them out," as Colleen Noreen, Cris' wife and sometimes-assistant in his beach-tag business, put it - a few days before the hurricane came along last month and caused lots of people to throw out lots of things.
Colleen admits she's not as sold on her husband's beach-tag collection as he is. But even if it takes several clear-plastic display cases to hold all his tags, she knows he could have worse habits.
"He's not collecting anvils or something," she says, smiling. "They're small."
And after just a few years of marriage, she has come to understand her husband is hardly the only person around who enjoys hunting for rare beach-tag treasures.
"We had a yard sale, and this woman came and said, 'Oh, you collect these, too?'" Colleen says, adding fellow collectors - who thought they were alone in their hobby - seem to feel vindicated when they find somebody who shares it: She sees them turn to whoever they're with and say, "'See, I'm not the only one.'"
Some local historical societies have also found out there's a buyer's market - including the Stone Harbor Museum. But Terrie Cwik, the president of the museum board, says the top price is $12 for the oldest tags - even if people at the museum have heard about those astronomical numbers online.
"There was talk ... that some of these people may be buying them here for $12 and reselling them on eBay," says Cwik, who adds 1971 was the first year Stone Harbor sold beach tags.
And before Hurricane Sandy came along, "We thought that maybe the most valuable thing we have is our beach badges," Cwik said.
Still, that four-figure, beach-tag price tag was news to Mayor Suzanne Walters, who first bought a home in Stone Harbor in 1975.
"Holy mackerel," she said. "I'm going to go home and look around" for old tags.
The Longport Historical Society also started selling old tags this year at its Port Store, which specializes in localized merchandise, says Debbie Kelly, the group's treasurer. The top price is $25 for the first five or so years the town had tags, starting in 1974.
Another hot item at the once-a-week Port Store is a T-shirt decorated with pictures of every year of the town's beach tags. The society puts out a new edition every five years, and is set to do the next one next year, Kelly says, adding they're "extremely popular."
Still, even someone who knows people like old beach tags found it unbelievable somebody likes them $2,750 worth.
"I think they're nuts," she said, laughing, "but to each his own."
Some dedicated collectors don't even get started into the hobby themselves. One fairly common story is for people to be given a collection of their town's tags - that's missing just a few years to be historically complete. So they try to fill in those gaps, which is how the value of rare tags can climb.
"I've seen on eBay, you can buy a whole set of Ocean City tags for about $500," Cris says.
And he himself has paid $50 for just one 1976 season tag from Ocean City, he's happy to say.
"That was a steal at $50," he says, completely confidently.
He sells only New Jersey beach tags - mostly because we're the only state where beach tags exist, says Cris, who, again, has studied these issues.
But he has customers in Florida, Pennsylvania, New York and more places.
"I ship them all over the country," he says. "I found a guy in Tennessee with a whole collection of Ventnor/Margate tags."
Then again, it's not quite right to say New Jersey is the only state that ever had beach tags. The Noreen collection includes a rare, metal tag from Putnam Lake, N.Y. - apparently from around 1950 - and another metal model, from Northwestern University in Illinois, dated 1952.
Back in the home state, the collection includes more metal - tags from Manasquan dated 1956 and 1957. And then there's the Riverwood Beach the owners believe also goes back to the 1950s.
"We don't know where that is," Colleen says, "but we know it looks old."
These collectors say that only seasonal tags - not daily or weekly ones - are prized by the "small but spirited group" of people, in Colleen's words, who share the hobby.
The Noreens are so spirited, they're working on a book of beach-tag pictures, which Cris sees as "the ultimate coffee-table book for a shore house." He has more beach-tag ideas too, including tags with computer chips in them - to track down lost kids.
He's so into beach tags that he always likes meeting fellow collectors. He even meets some who marvel out loud at him - without knowing they're doing it.
"They say, 'Have you seen that website - beachtags.com?'" Colleen says, smiling.
Yeah, he's seen it.
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