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  • Writer's pictureAhmad Austin

Sea Oats owner retiring after 40 years of business in Ocean City

(Originally published in The Press of Atlantic City on 8/18/2020)

Kathleen Balasavage has been shopping at Sea Oats since her first grandchild was born four years ago.

When a child in her family, or a friend’s family, has a special occasion coming up, whether it be a birth, birthday or a christening, the Asbury Avenue clothing store between 7th and 8th streets is always her first choice when she spends her summers in the city.

With Sea Oats owner Skip Tolomeo retiring after 40 years and closing the store’s doors for good after Labor Day weekend, Balasavage will have to start looking elsewhere.

“I’m sick about it,” said Balasavage, 56, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “Where am I going to shop for my grandchildren? I’ve been coming here for years. I love this store.” Those kinds of connections are what kept Tolomeo going for the the last four decades.

“It’s very hard to talk to some of the people,” said Tolomeo, 73. “There’s an older lady that (manager Sue Pedroni and I) know that’s been one of our older customers, and she called and didn’t know we were closing. We did a special order for her yesterday and today, and she was in tears.” Chamber Executive Director Michele Gillian has known Tolomeo for at least 25 years. She said working with him was “a lot of fun,” and his efforts were crucial in making the city more than a summer beach destination.

“(Special events) were instrumental to getting people introduced to Ocean City’s downtown district,” Gillian said. “We’ve always been known for our Boardwalk, but he really worked on getting people to come downtown, and it really made us a year-long destination for shopping and dining. “I think Sea Oats and Skip are going to be missed immensely. It’s a great children’s store that’s always had wonderful gifts.”

Tolomeo said the first nudge he got to retire came from increased manufacturing costs, forcing him to either settle for more expensive options or cheaper, lower-quality ones.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic came along and delayed shipments. The store’s fall collection, for example, was supposed to arrive in June. As of Wednesday, it had yet to show up, resulting in what Tolomeo says is the lowest inventory he’s seen since he opened the business.

The Bound Brook, Somerset County, native put the building up for sale, and after two months of discussions, struck a deal with a buyer last Monday. “It’s time,” he added.

Tolomeo opened the business with his wife in 1980. He previously served as the chief of staff for Indiana U.S. Representative David Evans on Capitol Hill. After he and his wife had their first child, he wanted to be in an environment where he could be with his family more often. The family wanted to open a business somewhere on the shore, and Sea Oats came to fruition shortly after. At its peak, Sea Oats had six storefronts from Long Beach Island to Avalon. The Ocean City store is the last location.

According to Pedroni, generations of families have continued shopping for clothing at Sea Oats.

“The (people) that were babies 40 years ago are now mothers themselves,” Pedroni, 65, said, “so it’s like a whole tradition.” Pedroni has worked at Sea Oats for 17 years. She arrived shortly after Tolomeo’s wife died in 2002. Having previously owned Sugarplum Kid’s Clothing in Vineland, Pedroni wanted to get back into the industry after years of social work. She’s responsible for going to children’s wear shows and ordering items for upcoming collections.

“(After Sugarplum) I went back to social work,” she said, “and then after I was tired of that for a while when I lived in Stone Harbor, I called Skip and said, ‘Hey, do you need anybody part-time?’”

Tolomeo was also heavily involved in the community, being part of the city’s Downtown Retail Merchants Association, Chamber of Commerce and Planning Board. He helped organize downtown block parties to give the area exposure and show that Ocean City was more than its Boardwalk. “It wasn’t so much my thinking how much more business I could do,” he said. “It was more exposure. The more exposure we gave downtown to more people, the better we all were.” Tolomeo, who now lives just two miles from the store, isn’t sure how he’ll spend his retirement, but he was grateful for the opportunity to make a living in what he thought was a unique environment.

“When we used to hire kids or anyone in here,” Tolomeo said, “we said, ‘Look, this is one of the few businesses where generally, everybody that walks in the front door is happy.’ Somebody just had a baby; somebody’s doing their christening; somebody has a 2-year-old’s birthday party. “I’ll always have a smile when I think of this.”

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