For the first time in 34 years, the Hand Store will not be a part of my life.
In so many ways, this is something that I never suspected I would have to write. I guess that perhaps I believed at different times that “some day” The Hand Store would no longer be a part of my life, but until something actually happens, the realities of it are hard to conceptualize.
For me, the decision by my parents to sell the Hand Store after 34 years in business was bittersweet to say the least. On the sweet side, I am happy for my father that for the first time since he was 18 years old, he won’t have to wake up and go to work. He started out over 50 years ago teaching on the college level for seven years while running his own landscape business before committing himself full time to entrepreneurship.
He poured blood, sweat and tears into establishing himself and making a good life for his family. And while he has had businesses in several different industries, I know that being the owner of Hands was always his favorite.
My dad grew up on LBI in the summers and like almost everyone else, looked forward to going to Hands as a kid. I think his love of the island and the fond memories he had of his childhood with his grandparents inspired him to not only provide a similar experience for my sister Jennifer and me, but also to cement his own love affair with the island. That’s why in 1986, he purchased the Hand Store in Beach Haven and The Ship Bottom Store (later Hands Ship Bottom Store).
That summer set off a 34-year span in which Hands has been a part of the every day fabric of my life.
For the first few years, I have to admit my love affair with Hands was largely based on the toy aisle. G.I. Joe was my jam in the late 1980s and the Hand Store was always stocked and the managers never minded taking a break from work to show me what was new in the aisle.
But as I became a teenager, Hands became so much more to me.
As a freshman and sophomore in high school, I was pretty miserable. I didn’t have many friends at my school and my prospects for things improving weren’t overly encouraging. I wasn’t an outcast at school. Instead, I was anonymous.
Summers were different though. Every Memorial Day, my parents would take us to the shore and we returned home to Pennsylvania as little as possible until Labor Day. When I was 12, my dad started sending me to work straightening the flip flop aisle (the worst possible job at Hands) for half days in Beach Haven. By the time I was 14, I was working 40-plus hours a week at the store in the summers, shifting between the Beach Haven and Ship Bottom locations. And with that work came not only a paycheck, but also a bona fide social life.
My seasonal co-workers became my friends and on a few occasions, love interests. We would spend seven nights a week together during the summer, leave on Labor Day and not see or talk to each other during the school year (no smartphones, social media or texting in those days) and pick up right where we left off the next Memorial Day. While I eventually found my way and had a far better final two years of high school than the first two, it was the long days and late nights with Hands crew that helped me find myself early on as an adolescent. While many of those relationships have been relegated to Facebook over the years, I am forever grateful for the friendships, romances, and adventures I had with my Hands crew as a teenager. They were truly some of the best times of my life.
In addition to those relationships, the Hand Store also allowed me to become much closer to members of my own family who worked for the business including my Aunt Denise who was a clothing buyer for many years, my Uncle Bob who still runs the Tuckerton Garden Center, and my Uncle Charlie who has been a force behind the scenes for 34 years. I would also be remiss if I didn’t say that Hands was partly responsible for my close relationship with my cousins Anthony, Johnny, and Charlie who grew up working side by side with me in the old Ship Bottom Garden Center and as adults are three of the best friends I have.
As I approached graduation from college, I departed from the business path that I know my father wished I had taken. I think he knew I had to find what made me happy career-wise and he was always supportive on this front. Even though I spent five years as a journalist and the last 14 as a high school English teacher, I always maintained contact with my father’s businesses. I bartended for him at his restaurants during my 20s and when I was 31, he offered me a summer job back at Hands.
It was during my second stint as a “summer kid” in his 30s that I gained an even greater respect for the people who run the store on a day-to-day basis than I had ever had before.
Things had changed at that point from what they were in the late 1990s. The retail market had been totally revolutionized by Amazon and online shopping, and competition both on and off the island had grown exponentially with more options in Manahawkin and retail expansion on the island. The shortening of the season due to many schools starting before Labor Day and a big economic downturn in 2008, and eventually Sandy in 2012 made the business tougher to navigate than it had been in the 1990s.
Despite this, Hands had found itself a nice niche during the summer. Sure Home Depot might be able to sell a hammer for a dollar or two less than us, but try getting there and back in under two hours on a Saturday in the summer and you will understand why people loved having the convenience of Hands.
Beyond that fact, the store remained an LBI institution. For so many people, for so many years, during both my father’s tenure and Mr. Hand’s as owners, the store was a “must visit” for tourists and reliable stop for locals. We always managed to have not only the staple items one would need in a pinch, but also quirky finds – the type of items people didn’t know they wanted or needed until they were in the store.
The responsibility for making this store such an institution on a day-to-day basis belongs largely to the efforts of John Tomaro and Sherry Neil. Both have spent the majority of their adult lives working at Hands and during that time, both have poured their hearts and souls into the care of the store.
As an adult working alongside John and going on a number of buying trips with him, the picture of just how conscientious and diligent he was about his job came into full view in a way I never could appreciate as a teenager. John gave his body (most specifically his knees) and just as importantly his keen retail mind to keeping the store relevant and viable for 37 years and there are very few people on Earth who I respect as a professional more than John. I know he may not have always realized it, but his dedication to Hands never went unnoticed and never went unappreciated.
Sherry is one of the most amazing people I have ever known. On the floor, even in her 70s, Mama Sher moves faster and gets more done than any four summer kids. Her merits as an employee are unquestioned, but her relationship to me goes well beyond that.
From the time I met her when I was six years old, I had an immediate kinship with Mama Sher. Over the years she has been a confidant, a friend, a counselor, and a protector. Mama Sher’s son Johnny passed away suddenly when he was a freshman in college and it is a loss that I cannot imagine and I know it is one that she feels daily. I think, and I hope I am not overstating, that I reminded her of her Johnny and perhaps because of that we have been so close over the years. She has been a second mother to me for 34 years and I don’t have the words to express my appreciation.
Aiding both John and Sherry since the mid 2000s has been Jen Tomaro and Johnny McGee. My second stint as a summer kid would not have been the same without either of them. Jen is the world’s best “work wife,” and Johnny, despite being about six inches taller than me, has become like a little brother to me.
Whenever I feel especially gloomy over the state of the world, something that has always made me feel better is going to the upstairs warehouse at Hands and “reading” the warehouse. As one might imagine, over 50 years of summer kids working and more than a few have left their mark in non-erasable marker over the years. Much of it is mundane – song lyrics, love declarations, markings of names and the summers the person worked – but it always reminds me of that innocent time in life where you were excited about having a first job, a first crush, that first crew of friends that really made you a part of something.
The warehouse is my pleasant reminder of the carefree and careless nature of youth.
Perhaps the best news that I got was that the new owners plan on continuing the legacy of Hands. There are not a lot of stores like Hands around anymore that mean so much to so many but also have a viable place in the community’s economy. I wish them the best of luck. They have inherited a fantastic crew and I know that they won’t be disappointed in their decision.
Knowing that the Hands family will continue brings me joy, even though I know it goes on without me as a part of it. The 34 years I had Hands as a part of my life truly shaped me as a person and I am grateful for everyone who has been a part of that with me.
I am glad that there are others out there who have their own Hands stories and that it was a place that made people’s lives just a little better because of their experience working or shopping there.
Thirty-four years from now, I hope those stories are still being written.