Jack Kelly Continues Legacy at Tip’s Hardware

Persisted for a Job at Age 16; Came Back to Own It
By MARIA SCANDALE | Aug 01, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

West Creek landmark Tip’s Hardware has a new owner who is well-known: Ocean County Freeholder Jack Kelly, with his family. The match fits like a rod and reel, a pipe and fitting, a key and lock, all of which the hometown hardware sells.

“I worked there when I was 16,” said the 66-year-old, who is a former mayor of West Creek (Eagleswood Township), the town where he grew up and then raised his own family.

He knows the nuts and bolts of the business, which has had a close tie to its customers since Stanley “Tip” Seaman started it in 1954, succeeded by son Bud Seaman and most recently by Tom Gormley.

“The store itself has been here for 64 years, so it’s got a good reputation. People know the store,” observed the proud new owner. “The people who come here don’t come only from Eagleswood. We have them from Bass River to Barnegat that know this store.”

There’s a story to that workplace start of his.

“When I was still in high school, Tip Seaman owned it and was running it with his son Bud Seaman. Now, Bud told me several times that he was going to hire me when I was 16 years old. And I’d come back in several times, and he’d say to me, ‘see me next week,’” Kelly recalled with a smile.

“So one day I just started working here. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m practicing.’ And I just kept putting stuff out on the shelves,” Kelly related of his early determination.

“His dad, finally about a week later, came over and said, ‘Do you want to go to work for us?’ And I said, ‘I’d love to!’”

He can’t remember the starting pay. “A buck and a quarter an hour” comes to mind.

“It was back in 1968. That’s how I got hired, by just being persistent.”

The store at 218 Main St. is Americana that new owners have kept updating, while keeping the staples that sell: hunting and fishing supplies, ammo (after a re-licensing process that will take several more weeks), bait, marine supplies, paint, tools, hardware, clothing and boots, lawn and garden, camping supplies (handy for two campgrounds) in town, and much more.

You can get a wheel for your wheelbarrow or boat trailer here. Or name-brand parts to fix things on water or on land.

“There’s a little bit of everything that we do here,” Kelly acknowledged.

“People come in for that little stuff – you’re fixing something on your boat or your trailer, you’re not going to go run all the way to Manahawkin to go see if you can save two cents on a piece.

“You’re working on it here, you want to come in and pick it up.”

Sure, much has changed since the 1980s, when the big stores began coming into Southern Ocean County. But there’s something about buying fix-it items in a place where somebody’s grandpa shopped in 1954.

More durable materials today mean that some things don’t need repairing as often – although others do.

“A lot of it’s the same, but the business is different in this way,” Kelly gave an example. “When I worked here, we did a lot of service-oriented business. We would buy galvanized pipe in 20-foot lengths and somebody would come in and we would cut the pipe to the length they needed and we would thread it for them.

“Nobody uses galvanized pipe today. Everything is PVC and it lasts forever. Back in the day, every winter everybody had leaks, and the pipes would expand and break.

“That’s just one example.”

On the flip side, paints used to come in a handful of colors. Now Tip’s mixes up hundreds of colors.

Kelly’s history with the store is just a part of its hometown heritage. When the store started, the front had been a fire hall.

“They made this into a hardware store. We still keep all the hardware in this section of the store.”

Keeping It

In the Area Families

Fast forward, and Tom Gormley, who is a founder and owner of the busy Shooters Sporting Center on Route 539 in Little Egg Harbor Township, was offering Tip’s for sale. He, in turn had worked at Tip’s with his brother when he was just a teenager.

Even though Kelly was certainly a logical candidate to become the new owner, it didn’t happen immediately. He thought a lot about it.

“It was for sale for a couple years, and I knew it. And it took me back to my childhood, if you will,” Kelly noted.

“I left here in 1983 and went to work for county government and worked there until I retired about 10 years ago. So I thought, ‘You know what? I think I’ll go talk to Tommy and see what the story is over there.’”

He reached an agreement with Gormley and made the purchase.

An elected county freeholder since 1993, Kelly assumed the local business starting on July 1.

When he decided, he brought in a son, Jimmy, and daughter Dawn as partners with the intention that they take over someday.

“My goal here, really, is to get her and her brother to understand the business end of running a business,” he said, “because I’m going to be 67 come October. I’m not planning on being here for the next 20 years. Knowing how to run the cash register, that won’t take them two minutes. Learning how to run a business will take a little longer.”

Rule number one to learn: “That money that’s in the cash register is not your money; that’s the store’s money.”

Young Kelly had gained experience during a short period of time when he was buying into ownership of a little store “with gas pumps right on Route 9, like all the old places did. They sold ice cream and sandwiches and novelties and some groceries.

“They sold it to me in 1971 when I was 19 – $1,000 down, they held the mortgage.

“I was running that business real well, until the whole world ran out of gas in 1974. So then I just couldn’t afford to stay there any more. I called them up and said, ‘Can I just sign this back over to you?’ They said, ‘You’ll do that?’ and I said, ‘yeah.’ So they were happy.”

Looking back, he added, “I always said it was like a college education without going to college; you know, learning how to run your own business.”

His time at Tip’s continued until Kelly was age 32 and got the job with the county.

Taking a minute to sit outside on the bench on a hometown July day while his daughter watered the flowers, Kelly pointed across Dock Road to a white Victorian house.

Here was another story. “My wife was living in that house right over there. She wasn’t my wife then; she was just a kid. So I hired her to work for me. Then later on I married her.”

Her name was Evelyn Bodie.

He was talking about the time frame when he owned the gas station.

“I hadn’t met her yet, and I told Bud Seaman, ‘See that girl over there? I’m gonna marry her.’ Bud said, ‘You’ll never even say hello to her. You’re too shy.’

“I was a shy young kid, you know.”

From Wooden Boats

To Fiberglass

Kelly is “very much” enjoying owning Tip’s.

Giving a tour of what’s in store, he has a memory of what people’s needs were then, blending into what works now.

“This is our marine paints. And again, that has changed dramatically,” the shelves in a center aisle prompted him to say.

“When I was here, going back 50 years, they were all wood boats – garveys and that kind of stuff.

“Now they’re all fiberglass boats. They don’t paint them every year. They just wax them down and buff them.

“We still have the bottom paints and the topside paint, but we sell much less of it,” he said.

“It’s a different business today, it really is. But we still have all the little pieces that still, people need.”

Anchors, oars, rope, screen – the list went on and on.

He pointed out stainless steel hose clamps; electrolysis for outboard motors so they don’t corrode; stabilizers for fuel. “And over here, we have the automotive section – same kind of stuff but for automobiles.”

A big part of the business is the Carhartt clothing gear, innerwear and outerwear for work and outdoor sports, along with work boots and waders.

Also in the newer section of the building is bait and tackle: “a big part of the business, from the fishing poles and crab traps, the lures,” Kelly showed. Rods and reels run from saltwater to fresh water all the way down to Disney princess sets for the littlest girls.

“We carry Penn reels, Daiwa, Shimano are big ones; all different selections, anything from $25 to over $200,” he said.

In the bait room is bunker for crabs, along with squid and other frozen bait. Live minnows are the live bait right now. “In the spring we’ll have bloodworms for when they’re first catching winter flounder.”

As our look through the store came back around to the door on Dock Road, the guests had no sooner mentioned how many customers the owner must know from the area, when a man walked in from the old days.

“This is the crab trap guy from when I was here,” Kelly told us. “He made all the commercial traps.”

Tip Seaman’s picture is on the wall above the counter. Kelly is “still trying to find one of Bud.”

Meanwhile, Kelly’s own imprint has been on the store for a long time. And is anew, 50 years later.

mariascandale@thesandpaper.net

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