A long row of tickets hangs next to Annette Hawa in a photo of her taken at the Virginia Gift Shop in the 1960s. They were for jewelry repairs and engraving, a booming business at the Oceanfront then.
The Hawa family has owned gift shops along Atlantic Avenue for decades. In the ’60s, Annette and her husband, Joe, bought Virginia Gift Shop on 17th Street and Atlantic. In those days, the stores along the resort’s main street catered as much to customers looking for luxury gifts as those hunting cheap keepsakes.
“At that point, Atlantic Avenue was downtown Virginia Beach,” said John Hawa, the family’s second-generation owner.
Sailors in the Navy picked out engagement rings and had pendants engraved. The store was stocked with fancy pens and figurines, some costing hundreds of dollars. Annette gift-wrapped the collectibles and adorned them with her handmade bows. The store stocked only one box of T-shirts. As another summer season draws to a close this week, all it takes is a minute on Atlantic to know that those times are long past.
As on the beach and the Boardwalk, the pace has grown faster — and the purchases are more easily disposed of. Though there are enclaves of higher-end shopping, the resort strip’s retail scene careened toward kitsch decades ago and has largely stayed there.
Blame malls and shopping centers — Pembroke, Hilltop, Lynnhaven, Town Center — for that, Hawa said. They lured away the bigger spenders, locals and tourists alike.
To survive, Virginia Gift Shop and Hawa’s five other Oceanfront stores jumped on the bandwagon of the latest fads. It started in the ’70s with puka shell necklaces and Mexican jumping beans and has continued, one trend after another, ever since.
Hawa has learned to lock in quickly on what’s hot.
“The next new thing becomes the next old thing very rapidly,” he said.
This year, the neon colors from the 1980s are back. Loom bracelets — small rubber bands that children link together to form a bracelet — are popular.
On a recent afternoon, Christy Beatty of Gaston County, N.C., brought her children to Virginia Gift Shop for souvenirs. Her teenage son picked out a T-shirt, and the store manager used a heat press to emblazon it with a design and the words “Virginia Beach.” Her pre-teen daughters picked out sunglasses, titanium energy bracelets and backscratchers.
Hawa attends several trade shows each year and runs into the same people he competes against on Atlantic Avenue. Hawa’s parents continue to work for the family business, as does his brother, and a third generation of Hawas are now involved, working in the warehouse and one of the stores. Summer comes and goes quickly.
“We do a big chunk of business in 60 days,” said Hawa. “It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time.”
An estimated 5.5 million tourists visit Virginia Beach each year and spend $1.1 billion, research for the city’s visitors department shows. Most of that spending takes place in the summer.
Plenty of folks besides the Hawas will entertain, transport, feed or clothe you for a slice of that spending.
Dozens of bike rental stands dot the Boardwalk through the summer. Cheries Bike & Blade Rentals has 13 locations. Back in the ’70s, Cheries rented a three-wheeled cart. In the ’90s, the company purchased its first four-wheeled surrey bike. Today, the demand for the contraption continues to grow. Surreys can be rented for about $20 to $25 per hour, depending on the size, and can accommodate a family, as long as everybody’s willing to help pedal.
Gone are the days of being limited to a canvas raft for enjoying the ocean surf. Today, stand-up paddleboarding is a growing recreational water activity, and it’s good exercise, too. Several local businesses offer classes and tours through local waterways. Rudee Inlet SUP offers two-hour nature tours in the ocean. “We look for dolphins riding waves and also osprey, turtles, seals, otters and eagles,” said instructor Randy Harris. Tours of the inlet, floating yoga, girls’ night out and full-moon meet-up night paddle events also are available.
Bargain Beachwear is just down the street from Virginia Gift Shop at 1714 Atlantic Ave. On a recent day there, the big draw was a sign for henna tattoos. Briana Wloczewski, 19, of Reading, Pa., couldn’t resist. She had bought her dad a baseball cap, custom-embroidered with his business’s name. She was ready to splurge on her herself. With her long hair pulled to the side, she offered her shoulder and $9.99 to Polina Dellen, who quickly inked a flower on her skin. One wall of Bargain Beachwear is covered with design choices. The infinity sign has been the most popular this summer.
Half the fun of getting a custom airbrush T-shirt at Pacific Beachwear, 1820 Atlantic Ave., is watching artist Brian Ray bring it to life. He clips a picture of an image next to a T-shirt and airbrushes it freehand with bold colors. His booth fronts the sidewalk, and passers-by are welcome to gawk.
(c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.