The Jersey Cape Shell Club had its last meeting this week until next spring. But that doesn't mean its members have packed away their shells for the winter.

Because seashells of all sorts are a passion, if not an obsession or addiction, in this group, which has been around for more than 40 years. Its people come to the meetings, at Stone Harbor's Wetlands Institute, from as far away as Turnersville, Willingboro and even other states in a few cases. And the 50-plus members all know that the next six months can be the best time of year to go hunting for shells on South Jersey's beaches and bays - although some like to head south and keep up their searching on their favorite Florida beaches.

"Usually the winter here is much better than the summer," says Maura Kelley, of Wildwood, who comes to the meetings with another veteran club member, her mother, June. "In the summer, they're pretty beaten up."

Longtime local hunters also know that shells often get pretty picked over in the summer - both by the crowds drawn to the shore and by the mechanical rakes most South Jersey towns use to clean their beaches every day.

Sue Hobbs, the club's president, knows a whole lot about shells. She's a professional who runs a business called Sue Hobbs Specimen Shells in Cape May.

And she's such a force in her field that she actually has a shell named for her - Acrosterigma hobbsae, because she had the sharp eyes that first spotted one as a previously unidentified shell, in 1999. Hobbs sent several of the deep-water, cockle-type shells to Jacques Vidal at the Paris Museum, and he honored her as its discoverer by giving it that scientific name.

"I could just tell it wasn't like anything I'd ever seen before," Hobbs said at the meeting, as she showed off a sample of her namesake shell - among other spectacular specimens she had on display for her fellow members to ogle and inspect. They included a baler volute, a native of the South Pacific that several club members and visitors agreed was the single biggest sea shell they'd ever seen.

But even after 30-plus years in the business, and traveling the world to buy and sell shells, Hobbs is anything but jaded on the subject. Ask a question and she can launch into a detailed description of the mechanics of each shell and its former resident - and she can just as quickly launch into a list of the many other shell clubs where she's also a member.

(The number is at least five, in three states and several countries.)

Karen Lelli, of Vineland, just finished nine years as the Jersey Cape Shell Club's president, and gave up the job in part because she's happy to say her family is growing - her third grandchild was born two months ago. She's also happy to say that her 18-month-old grandson, Nate, dug up his first special shell from her favorite Brigantine beach this summer, "and pulled it up to show Mom-Mom that he found a conch shell."

And his Mom-Mom saved it for him, just like she saved her first curiosity-creating shell ever, which also came from Brigantine - in a special spot that's her secret. But despite five-plus decades of age difference between Mom-Mom and grandson, it wasn't that many years ago that Lelli found the shell that activated her addiction.

She picked that first shell up in 2001, and a few years later, she was president of a club that at the time had hit a bit of a slowdown.

"I said, 'I don't know much about it, but I'll give it a try,'" says Lelli, who works in a family-run auto parts store in Vineland. "So 2004 was my first year as president and chairing the show" - that's the three-day Shell Show every August, also at the Wetlands Institute, the biggest event of each year for the Jersey Cape Shell Club.

And Lelli is still far from an expert, she doesn't mind saying.

"Don't ask me the Latin names," she says. "I'm just a shell collector who likes making my flowers" - and has made "at least a few hundred" flowers out of shells since she started finding them.

Louise Pepe grew up and started collecting shells in Sea Isle City, but now lives and teaches seventh-graders in Turnersville, at the western end of the Atlantic City Expressway in Gloucester County. Still, she drives to every Jersey Cape Shell Club meeting she can make, and says "I would drive twice as far to get to this group. ... These are the nicest people in the world."

Pepe credits her mother, longtime Sea Isle resident Augusta Hogan, with helping her find the shell club - and with identifying her daughter as a shell collector before Pepe ever thought of herself that way.

"I had one box of shells," Pepe says, and her mom asked if she planned to take her collection with her when Pepe moved out of their Sea Isle house. But Pepe has kept finding more and more in the years since, and "I can't even count how many boxes I have now."

She didn't find all of them herself, though - Pepe says that once people know you're a shell collector, they often give you any cool shells they find. Those shell donors include her students, for whom she has one rule:

"I tell the kids, 'Don't buy them. Go find them,'" she says - and a lot do.

(Speaking of finds, Pepe came up with the perfect addition to snack time for this club - Unique brand "Pretzel Shells." They aren't sea-shell shaped, they're just the outer shells of pretzels. And yes, they were a big hit with these fans of shells of all sorts.)

Every shell-club meeting also has a featured speaker on a topic somehow related to shells, and the lastest was Greg DeBrosse, who oversees raising disease-resistant oysters as director of Rutgers Cape Shore Laboratory. DeBrosse admits to being a shell fan himself and having a small collection, but his talk was more on the technical end of oyster production - and how his facility manages to send about 10 million hardy oysters a year out into the world.

The shell fans in the crowd listened intently and had lots of questions, not one about collecting oyster shells.

Afterward, the club members went back to checking out the display of showier shells by Hobbs, who says she "can bring a van load - or I can bring a little boxful" to the club's May-to-October meetings.

This display was on the smaller end of that range, but there were plenty to inspire Mary Still, who's in the club's Crafty Ladies group. They can turn shells into jewelry, into Christmas decorations - including an entire creche scene made out of seashells - or into animals ranging from dogs to dinosaurs. They do a lot more too, and when they sold their creations in August at the shell show, they raised $1,800 for the club.

As she left Stone Harbor to drive home, Pepe, the teacher, had a final thought on what draws her to shells - and to the Jersey Cape Shell Club.

"The people are so appreciative of each other, and so appreciative of nature, of these beautiful creatures," she said. "And we should appreciate them, probably more than we do."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237