New Jersey's Tacky T-Shirt Capital Is Bracing for a Bad Summer

"I’m not a doctor," said a boardwalk vendor. "I’m not a medical expert. I don’t know when this is going to end."
April 7, 2020, 4:43pm
Wildwood
Photo by Dan McQuade

In the world of tacky, tourist-trap t-shirts, the main themes of the coronavirus outbreak have already been decided: Toilet paper, hand-washing, and social distancing. Art Brands, a store that sells decals to vendors for screenprinting, has a bunch of designs for sale already. One shows Tony Montana with the quote “Power. Respect. Toilet paper.” Another shirt, showing that t-shirts run old puns into the ground decades later, asks: “got toiletpaper?” Another calls for Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has impressed at government press conferences, to run for president himself.

The social-distancing shirts are here. They’re already available online on Etsy and other sites. But novelty t-shirts aren't meant to be sold online; they're a staple of beaches and other tourist sites. They are in Times Square and Venice Beach. They are in Wisconsin Dells and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. And for my entire life, I’ve been seeing them in Wildwood. But will there even be anyone to buy these shirts this year?

I'm hesitant to toot my own horn, but I’ve been the world’s preeminent chronicler of Wildwood t-shirts since I first wrote about them in 2012 for Philadelphia magazine. The Wildwoods—a collection of five municipalities on two islands in Cape May County, New Jersey—have long been a summer attraction for residents of the Philadelphia metro area. People with an affinity for Wildwood have usually been going their whole lives. My parents went to Wildwood as kids. They rented a shore house with their friends one summer. I’ve been going since I was in utero. I still visit every summer. And since I was a kid, I’ve been enamored with the t-shirts on the 2.5-mile boardwalk that spans the length of Wildwood and 10 blocks of North Wildwood.

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Wildwood, 2014. Photo by Dan McQuade.

I can’t fully explain why. Most of them are tacky. Some of them are offensive. But there’s something about them that has piqued my interest since I saw a “Coed Naked Ninja Turtles” shirt that showed Leonardo getting it on with April O’Neil when I was a little kid. (I didn’t really understand it then; maybe I still don’t.) Wildwood shirts share a bond with the nonsense merch that pops up for sale on Facebook and other sites. But because these shirts are sold on the boardwalk, they aren’t walls of text. They have to stand out from across the way. They are usually simple and bright. Many are aimed at kids. And because stores display what’s popular, a walk down the boardwalk gives one a sense of what themes are actually popular among beachgoers.

The biggest money-making months in Wildwood, and other resorts in Cape May County, are July and August. But the coronavirus is already threatening to wreck the resort’s economy. Ben Rose, of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority, said the Wildwoods have already taken a hit. A 2012 study showed 7,289 hotel rooms available on the island in the summer months, versus just 676 rooms in January. But those 676 rooms are not empty in the winter; there are weekend events at the Wildwood Convention Center that pack the year-round hotels. Now, events planned for April and May have already been postponed or canceled.

“There has been an economic impact on the island already,” Rose said. “Those people are not staying in hotels. The restaurants are closed. Retail stores are closed.”

Wildwood is a town relatively devoid of chains. The stores on the boardwalk are mostly owned by small business owners who have figured out how to make money in the short summer season. They all contribute to the feel and look of the boards. But as they scramble to figure out their plans for the 2020 summer season, they’re all terrified for what happens next.

Maximillian Kelly owns three stores on the 2800 block of the boardwalk: Zombie Shark, Mr. T’s and Hat Trick. Normally, he’d be getting ready to open. Now he’s not sure what’s next. “We even have to figure out if we're legally able to work inside the store," said Kelly. "Even if we have the doors closed and we can't actually be open, we'll do stuff like that to get ready.”

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Wildwood, 2016. Photo by Dan McQuade.

Kelly took another hit just before I talked to him last week: He was laid off from a part-time job at the Philadelphia International Airport that he does in the offseason. He’s only losing his job a few weeks early, he said, so he doesn’t have it as bad as friends in the service industry have it. But plenty of people are in his situation: They’ve lost one income stream while being unsure of how much future income they’ll have.

Another boardwalk vendor in the same situation as Kelly is Erez Ascandrani. He is a second-generation Wildwood boardwalk vendor; his dad opened up a boardwalk store in the mid-1970s. Ascandrani, who grew up in Wildwood, said most of his friends in the boardwalk business don’t have second jobs. The economic effects of the coronavirus could wreck people.

“Every business is going to get hurt,” he said. “I don't know yet if we're going to have any season or not … we finish our season in October. And maybe 90 percent of my friends don't have other businesses. So during the season you're working seven days a week, you're working sometimes 14 hours a day. And then in the winter, you don't do anything.”

Ascandrani planned to leave his home—since he doesn’t really have a summer because he’s working, he spends his winters in Florida—next week in order to open over Easter weekend. Instead, he’s stuck in Florida with his pregnant wife. He is unsure of what will happen next. “Before the corona thing, I was counting the days to come back,” he said. “I usually open Easter weekend. I know for now that I'm not even going to open until—I don't know. Memorial Day weekend? I don't know. I don’t know.”

That uncertainty is nagging at Kelly, too. He is a master of figuring out what t-shirts will be top-sellers. A few years ago, he told me, he was the first on the boardwalk to sell Taylor Swift-themed parodies of Wiz Khalifa’s “Taylor gang or die” merchandise. It later showed up everywhere. But his mastery of marketing isn’t helping him in this case. He’s not even sure what to order.

“Right now I’m trying to figure out how many t-shirts to order, how many sweatshirts to order, and we really don’t know,” Kelly said. “I’m not a doctor. I’m not a medical expert. I don’t know when this is going to end… It's one of the things where this summer is going to be really difficult for everybody.”

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Wildwood, 2017. Photo by Dan McQuade.

Other apparel businesses can move online. But Wildwood, obviously, survives on that summer walk-up crowd. Brian Tyrrell, a professor of hospitality and tourism management studies at New Jersey’s Stockton University, told VICE the economy of Wildwood and other South Jersey shore towns is largely driven by the economy in the Philadelphia metro area. (New York area residents, as well as French Canadians, are the secondary visitors to the shore.) And Cape May County, where Wildwood is located, has by far the most seasonal economy in the state. “There are places in Cape May County that just close down after the summertime,” he said.

Tyrrell, pressed for an optimistic outlook for the Wildwood boardwalk, came up with one. Currently, people aren't booking summer vacations. But if July and August roll around and things are beginning to get back to normal and their finances haven’t taken a huge hit, they’re going to want to take a vacation—but may not want to fly or travel very far. Wildwood and other New Jersey shore towns could fill up with Philadelphia and New York visitors who’d normally have made plans that sent them on airplanes. (The Wildwoods have an added bonus of being more affordable than other shore towns; the beaches are free, unlike most in New Jersey.)

“I'm not making plans for July and August everywhere, and yet if July and August roll around and I've not been hurt considerably financially,” he said, “I'm still going to spend those recreation dollars somewhere. I have children, and they're gonna want to go to the beaches, go to the zoos and ride the go-karts, all that fun stuff. Certainly, it will be a challenge.”

July and August are the big moneymakers. Rose, of the Wildwoods tourism authority, said that 80 percent of total Wildwoods revenue comes in just about 10 weeks. “We like to stay the spigots turn on the day school lets out,” he told VICE. “And if you're in the Wildwoods the day before, and you're here the day after, it is a world of difference. The beaches are packed, the boardwalk is packed.”

Ascandrani isn’t so sure people will come back this year, however. “Let's say that tomorrow, they tell you that everything is good,” he said. “The corona is gone. Or it happens in May, or June, or whenever. But they say ‘Everything can be open.’ I don't see the scenario that people are going to walk hand-in-hand, or up against each other, on the boardwalk. Maybe, after being in quarantine, the first thing people are going to want to do is go to the beach, but I really don't see it happening. I don't see people going on the boardwalk, going inside stores. The uncertainty is what's killing us.”

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Wildwood, 2015. Photo by Dan McQuade.

And while Wildwood vendors make most of their money in those 10 weeks, they have costs the whole year. Ascandrani said he pays about 40 percent of his rent when his business is closed. He’s already ordered inventory for 2020. “You have to order stuff for months ahead,” he said. “It’s a souvenir for 2020. It’s labeled with ‘Wildwood’ on it. These are vendors you've worked with for 20 years—and you want to work with them in the future—and you don't want to screw them, so ... yeah. You can’t just say now, ‘I don’t want it.’”

Even staffing the resorts could be tough. As fewer locals work in Wildwood for the summer, more workers are from out of the country. Many Wildwood workers are foreigners on J-1 summer work travel visas that allow them to come for three months to work. The J-1 visa program was suspended for 60 days in mid-March. Ascandrani said some of his annual employees have already told him they’re not coming over this summer. (Some countries have urged citizens already in the U.S. on J-1 visas to come home.)

The most prominent employer in the Wildwoods is Morey’s Piers. They operate amusement piers, water parks, hotels and restaurants. A 2018 story in the Press of Atlantic City noted that 182 of Morey’s 1500 summer positions the year before went unfilled. Moreys simply could not have enough staffers to open all three of its piers this year. A spokesperson for the company declined comment to VICE.

Federal social distancing guidelines are now extended until the end of April. Things do not look good for that being the end. Some cities have done more: This week Toronto canceled all public events through June 30. Tyrell said May is usually a “strong shoulder season” for Wildwood, but it doesn’t look like businesses will get their chance this year.

Kelly, the t-shirt salesman, said he has fond memories of going down the shore with his family as a kid. He knows people will come back. But he doesn’t know when. “I think Wildwood is a very strong community … the people who come here, like, they love going down here.” (It’s true.) “You know, we wish to open up. People are going to get stir crazy. But I just don’t know what it’s going to be like.”

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