NORTH WILDWOOD, N.J. — It was a typical June Sunday at the Jersey Shore, and as the sun began to sink, people shuffled off the beach with sand in their hair and ears, lodged deep in both their belly buttons and more irritating places down below.
These days, most beach-goers head to nearby rentals and condominiums to shower, or perhaps a dip in the pool at a local hotel. George Amundsen II, 64, and his son, George III, were there for the rest of them and a simple business philosophy built on soap, water, and a bit of dignity.
“I mean, everyone deserves a shower, right?” Amundsen said on a bench by his business.
Parking is the bulk of the Amundsen family business, located just off the boardwalk, on 24th Avenue in North Wildwood. That’s about as common as they come at the Jersey Shore, but the name of their business — ”Wildwood Daytrippers” with “Showers” painted in bold red and white beside it — hearkens to a Shore of bygone days, when bathhouses outnumbered parking lots and few but the wealthy could stay overnight there.
“We charge five bucks for a shower,” said Amundsen II, whose grandparents opened the business in 1962. “It was $6 for a while, but I figured, what the heck.”
Amundsen II said the “shoobie,” a much-debated moniker for daytrippers who traveled to the Jersey Shore by train and brought their lunches to the beach in a shoebox a century ago, are his people. In fact, he encourages that same shoobie ethos on his website.
“To save even more money, pack yourself a picnic lunch and a bucket of chicken for dinner,” the Daytrippers website urges.
Once numbering in the hundreds in the early 20th century from Atlantic City south to Cape May, bathhouses where people can pay to take a shower have been reduced to a handful at today’s Jersey Shore. A 1990 Inquirer story found that demand for bathhouses was ebbing then, with owners citing rising insurance premiums, hefty water bills, and a dwindling amount of daytrippers as the main causes.
“People have more money and they can stay overnight,” one owner of a now-shuttered bathhouse told The Inquirer at the time.
A newly refurbished bathhouse at 13th and the boardwalk in Ocean City has been open for decades. In Wildwood, a few miles south from Daytrippers, another bathhouse by the beach appears to have closed in recent years.
“I was just explaining to a customer from Florida what a bathhouse was,” said Tony Galante, who’s run 13th Street Bikes & Bathhouse for 22 years. “He was like, ‘What’s a bathhouse?’”
Post-World War II Wildwood saw a hotel boom, with hundreds of rooms and L-shaped buildings adorned in neon and the distinct, sharp angles of the resort’s famed Doo Wop architecture. Many of those hotels took the place of large, early 20th-century boardinghouses, where guests often shared a bathroom. As the millennium approached, however, many of those classic hotels, like the Thunderbird Inn, were torn down for townhouses or their rooms converted to condominiums, making a one-night stay even more difficult.
Still, that hasn’t created a daytripping bathhouse boom.
The Thunderbird Inn was once a neighbor of Daytrippers and in the height of the condo blitz at the turn of the millennium, Amundsen II said he was offered $3 million for the bathhouse and parking lot. A builder, Amundsen II said he’s contemplated building condominiums on the property himself. For now, he’s letting his son, George III, take over the daily operation.
“I mean, I love it here, so I really don’t care. It’s all good,” he said.
Public bathrooms on boardwalks and beaches up and down the Shore issue dire warnings of steep fines for anyone caught bathing or changing in a bathroom stall. At least one Jersey Shore police department said that’s rarely an issue.
“I mean, I appreciate the signs,” Amundsen II said.
Galante said the bathhouses couldn’t survive on showers alone. He also rents bicycles. He charges $10 for a shower there, but that includes a one-day beach tag, he said, which is worth $5. While many Shore municipalities have installed open-air, outdoor showers, Galante said they’re mostly for feet and a quick rinse.
“You can’t really get the sand out of your crotch, or your armpits, or your hair with those,” he said.
At Daytrippers, around 5 p.m., it was shower time.
“That’s what time the lifeguards leave,” Amundsen II said.
One of the Amundsens’ first customers was landlord Roy Nagel, who’d spent the day babysitting unruly teenagers who’ve rented his properties. Nagel, it turns out, has even deeper convictions about showers. He volunteers with a “shower ministry” every week in Atlantic City, Camden, and Philadelphia’s Kensington section, driving a mobile, stainless steel shower for homeless people and those struggling with addiction.
“It restores dignity. Period,” Nagel said. “Some of these people haven’t had a shower in months.”
Some customers showered and then went up to the boardwalk for pizza, rides, and games. Sasha Sanchez, 29, and eight months pregnant, said she just wanted to get the sand out before driving back to North Philly.
“I’m already uncomfortable,” she said. “I’m not driving back in the car covered in sand.”