Inside the Root Beer Barrel, the funky little Brigantine surf shop he opened in 1974, John Gabries waits on customers, works the phones, shares stories, and, lately, fulfills requests for hugs, too.
The Barrel will be closing forever after Labor Day weekend, "so everybody wants a hug," he says.
And after 44 years of selling surfboards, board shorts, board wax, boogie boards, bikinis, and so much more on this pretty island just north of Atlantic City, Gabries has plenty of hugs to give and even more stories to tell.
"I'd only been surfing for a couple of years when I opened the place," he said Wednesday.
He has the sort of voice that slaps you on the back and invites you to stay for dinner — which he cooks regularly for his employees.
"I was 18. The summer ended and I had $1,500 saved from busboying at the Lagoon Restaurant," Gabries said.
His wife, Lisa — they met at the shop not long after it opened and now have two children and three grandchildren — smiled and said, "We've been winging it for 44 years."
Said her husband: "I talked to a surfer I really admired. He had long blond hair, drove a Volkswagen van, and his girlfriend, Spring, had long blond hair and was a surfer too. You know, total '70s."
(I know, indeed — even if the closest I came to surfing was watching the movie Beach Blanket Bingo.)
"I told him I wanted to open a surf shop," Gabries said. "I thought he'd put me down. But he said, 'Go for it man! Go for it!' "
So Gabries rented a vacant storefront on 11th Street for $300 a month. He spent most of his $1,500 on inventory and was able to get a $5,000 loan for more goods through a handshake deal with a local banker — back when such people existed and such things were possible.
"The shop was a big hit," Gabries, a native of Chester, Pa., said. "I thought I'd be a millionaire at 30, and retire."
Instead, he moved the Barrel to a bigger location at 10th and Brigantine, where he and Lisa live on the third floor, above the surfboard showroom. Their eclectic emporium has endured as a somewhat offbeat destination in a somewhat off-the-beaten-path Jersey Shore town.
"You hear people say, 'I'm going to Ocean City, Wildwood, Margate, Atlantic City,' " said longtime customer Craig Kaplan, a marketing professional who lives in Philadelphia. "You don't hear a lot of people say, 'I'm going to Brigantine.' "
Nevertheless, generations of serious and novice surfers, beachwear enthusiasts, and families with kids have gone to the Barrel. It's where folks have bought their first kayaks, and followers of fads — rollerblading comes to mind — have gotten their gear on.
"I got all my boards and my waxes and my wet suits here. John always had what you needed," said Joe Stanton, a lawyer who lives in Jenkintown.
"I sold wood stoves, Christmas trees, skateboards, I was never afraid to try unusual products," said Gabries.
He and Lisa did everything themselves before DIY was a thing. They were artisanal proprietors offering "experiential" retail when bricks-and-mortar stores still ruled. And they hand-curated their inventory — their content, if you will — when curating was what people working in museums did.
"We had no training," said Lisa, who has handled all the women's-wear buying for decades. "We were different. We sold stuff the big mall stores didn't."
The Barrel is "beachy," said Tommy Dodson, a Villanova University senior from Haddonfield who worked there several summers. "It's not a boutique. John will even fillet your [freshly caught] fish for you."
Her husband's personality "also had a lot to do with" the Barrel's success, said Lisa. Timing helped as well: The business was established three years before the casino revolution awakened the economy of Atlantic City and its rather sedate neighbors.
"Everything exploded," Lisa said. "And we benefited."
The Barrel's handy and highly visible corner location on Brigantine Avenue proved especially fortunate during the heyday of Brigantine Castle, a quirky haunted house/mini theme-park attraction that operated on a vintage pier.
The castle's ubiquitous late-night TV commercials ("You'll see a living headless woman!") helped put the castle and the island on the map from 1976 to 1984.
"Traffic was bumper to bumper on the avenue," Gabries said. "We used to stay open until midnight."
Said John Seitter, a historian who grew up and still lives in Brigantine: "The Barrel was the go-to for beachwear, surfboards, and boogie boards on the island. But Brigantine is changing. [Superstorm] Sandy and the casino closings had a big impact. The year-round population is smaller."
Like Seitter, the Gabries have watched Brigantine evolve from a community of modest bungalows, with rents even hippie surfers and students could afford, to a town where big, bigger, and in some cases, massive new houses jolt the landscape.
"We tried to sell the business for two years, but no one would step up," Gabries said. "No one even made a serious offer. So the building is sold, and we're outta here."
Health issues also entered into their decision to call it quits. After years of paddling, Gabries has no cartilage left in either shoulder. And Lisa is being treated, successfully, for early-stage Parkinson's disease.
They'll retire to their home in Florida and enjoy having the summer off for the first time in decades.