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Summer?s Almost Over

"EVERYTHING must go!” shouted the clerk manning a T-shirt rack outside Hoy’s Five & Ten, a purveyor of the kinds of trinkets and knickknacks that you would only entertain buying while on vacation.

Dave Hoy, the store’s owner, stood on the sidewalk trying to keep up with the swarm of customers who were snatching up the last of his snow globes, glass animal figurines and shirts advertising where their owners spent the summer.

“My whole thing is to get rid of everything while we can,” Mr. Hoy said, wiping the sweat off his brow as he faced the hot morning sun. In a little more than week, he said, “it’s going to be very quiet.”

As a year-round denizen of Stone Harbor, N.J., for the last three decades, Mr. Hoy knows what happens — or, more accurately, doesn’t happen — in this South Jersey shore town when the summer crowds vanish. Like countless other summer destinations across the country after Labor Day each year, Stone Harbor goes into hibernation. It will be a sedate, even desolate, place where it’s easy to find a parking spot, but not so easy to get a pizza delivered. Most of the million-dollar homes will sit dark, and drivers will be permitted to make right turns at red lights again.

But on a late-August weekend, the town was anything but sedate. Mobs of Stone Harbor’s summer dwellers were squeezing all they could out of their last days of summer freedom: one last round of rooftop miniature golf, one last dinner under the stars — probably something with crab in it — and one last header into the breaking waves. They were all trying not to think about the regimented lives awaiting them on the other side of the waterway.

Chris Hartzell, the 22-year-old manager of Shades of Stone Harbor, a sunglasses boutique, said leaving town never gets any easier. “It’s probably the worst feeling, driving out on Avalon Boulevard across the bridge,” he said. “Because you know your summer is gone.” He was planning to make that drive last Sunday so he could head back to school.

For the last 15 years, Mr. Hartzell, a student at East Stroudsburg University in eastern Pennsylvania, has spent each summer at his parents’ house in Avalon, the “other” town on a seven-mile spit of sand that sits just off Cape May on New Jersey’s southernmost shore, about 150 miles from New York City.

When he gets back to school, where he still has to write a term paper he didn’t finish before bolting for the shore at the end of May, he said he will do what he does at the beginning of every new school year: regale his friends with stories of his summer. “That’s all I talk about,” he said proudly. “I just tell them it’s the best place. Ever.”

Even at its busiest, Stone Harbor has an unruffled feel to it. Its 1,200 year-round residents watch their town’s population mushroom to more than 20,000 in the summer. But even in high season, it’s easy to lose yourself on a stroll down the beach or a bike ride down Second Avenue, the main drag. The island is only about two or three city blocks wide at most points, so the beach is never far.

It lacks the commercial feel of other Jersey Shore towns like Ocean City, about a 25-mile drive to the north, or Wildwood, a 15-minute drive south. There is no boardwalk. No roller coaster.

“There isn’t a bad time to be down here,” said Mary Ann Lafferty, 60, a first-grade teacher visiting from Williamstown, N.J. Like many of the town’s seasonal visitors, she has been vacationing in Stone Harbor since she was young, and couldn’t shake the sand out of her shoes. “It’s been my place as long as I can remember,” she said wistfully. “You know what they say, a bad day at the shore is better than a good day at work anytime.”

THE preferred style for beach houses, which are densely packed onto a Manhattan-esque street grid, is Cape Cod with a distinctive New Jersey accent — the more windows, balconies and gables, the better. It’s not uncommon for homes to sell for well over $1 million, yet the area is decidedly unpretentious. Flip-flops are never frowned upon, and restaurants won’t scoff if their patrons bring a cooler of beer to drink with dinner.

While many of the hotels are resort-motel hybrids, they charge resort prices — between $200 and $250 a night for a room during peak season.

Staffing the town’s hotels, restaurants and shops gets difficult after Labor Day. Stone Harbor’s businesses rely heavily on college students, many of whom are enjoying all the carefree time they can before the real world beckons.

Chloe Obando, 21, a University of Delaware senior, was working her last shift on Saturday night as a waitress at Solé, an Italian restaurant in downtown Stone Harbor. Once the last plate of crabmeat ravioli had been served, she and her roommate were planning to make the two-hour drive back to school in Newark, Del. They spent all summer working at Solé and living in nearby Sea Isle City. But this season was most likely their last together on the shore.

“I’ll probably have to find a real job,” Ms. Obando said, looking sunburned and sounding a bit forlorn during a brief break from hustling between tables. “You can’t live on the beach forever.”

She said she would miss watching lifeguard races on Friday nights and evenings out at the Princeton, Avalon’s hot spot for 20-something night life. Downtown Stone Harbor is lacking as far as night life is concerned, she noted dryly.

But leaving Stone Harbor will also be a release, in a way. The town may be a summer getaway, but many people like Ms. Obando, who uses her summer job to pay for tuition, find that Stone Harbor can be a grind. When asked the emotion she felt most strongly on her last night at Solé, she responded without having to think, “relief.”

Tom Gilardi, a 20-year-old junior member of the town’s police force, was counting the days until Labor Day, when he will head back to school. In Stone Harbor, even the law enforcement is seasonal.

Mr. Gilardi, a student at Burlington County College in Burlington, N.J., said he was tiring of the job’s mundane tasks like foot patrol, writing parking tickets and opening car doors for people who locked their keys inside. Besides, he still has another round of academy training to go before he can carry a pistol. The only weapons on his belt were a baton and pepper spray.

“It’s repetitive,” he said. “You go out, walk around, talk to business owners, check your meters and wait for something to happen. I won’t mind getting back to class.”

Most of his friends are already gone, and he said there were little ways that made it seem like summer was over in Stone Harbor. “You can already tell the seasons are changing,” he said. “The sun doesn’t set on 96th Street anymore.”

LAST Sunday, Charles and Doris Mapes sat in the sand, their chairs facing the ocean so they could catch the last bit of sun before driving back home to Lawrence Township, N.J. While most of Stone Harbor may be packing up, the Mapeses are not letting summer slip away without a fight. They plan to return to their house on 98th Street a few more times before the weather turns cold.

“Why would you want to leave this?” Ms. Mapes, 70, asked, her arms outstretched toward the open ocean. “It’s hard to go home to the normal routine of life. You can get very lazy down here.”

But the Mapeses know they can’t stall winter forever.

“It’s sad to see summer come to an end — always,” she said. “It happens every year, and it always comes too soon.”

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