VENTNOR, N.J. — What can you say about Chuck Leiber, unofficial mayor of Dorset Avenue beach, the Duke of Dorset, unchallenged maestro of apres beach happy hours, unrelenting schmoozer of the sands stretching from Oxford Avenue to the pier?
"That's my reign," he says. "My realm. My realm of influence."
Beyond Oxford Avenue, nobody knows you?
"I don't go past Oxford," he says.
Really, what can you say about Chuck that he isn't already saying about himself before you or anybody else has a chance to chime in? That he hasn't said a million times as he stopped by your beach chair, or held court in his daily happy hours? Stop by already! Why don't you ever stop by?
"I would think that 99 percent of the world is not as friendly as me," Chuck says. It's true.
But things change.
One summer he and his wife, Debbie, were settling in to his 19th year in his house on the boardwalk just off busy Dorset Avenue, a contractor's special wedged into a maybe not quite full lot, dwarfed by huge houses on either side, a man attached to his beach — HIS beach, just check the deed, where property lines stretch out into the water — in a way that might be hard to explain to those unfamiliar in the idiosyncratic ways of the Jersey Shore beachgoer.
Then, over the winter, Chuck moved. Long time coming, never mind the details, Lieber had to downsize. The details, the backstory, it doesn't matter, it washes away with another tide. He rolls with it.
At 78, retired from a life in Philadelphia and its suburbs, working in health supplies, Chuck suddenly became a ruler in exile, trading an unobstructed beach view, a huge bar, and a porch that was basically part of the boardwalk to a humble first-floor apartment at 5000 Boardwalk, a full nine blocks away, with a street view, a totally different beach.
His people were upset.
Where would they go after a day at the beach, if not Chuck's porch, conveniently located just off the boardwalk and just outside his ground-floor bar of epic proportions (700 bottles of Scotch, seven seats).
It remains an issue, though his most loyal followers continue to make the trip on Friday nights to Chuck and Debbie's new place. But the old free happy hour is no more, the porch empty, the new owner preparing to tear the house down, bar and all. Chuck ran into him on the boardwalk recently and made some inquiries, thinking perhaps the Dorset happy hour might be revived under new management. The new owner told Chuck he doesn't drink.
"The kind of person I am is I talk to everybody," he said. "Most of whom I have no idea what their names are. It takes me like seven years to learn somebody's name. And if I don't see them for a week I forget their names anyway. I've spent my whole life coming to the Shore in the summers and all. This is a fabulous beach. The people are way nicer than the people in Margate or even Atlantic City."
Chuck says his happy-hour tradition started with another gesture of singular Shore generosity: use of his driveway. "A woman I know is dropping off people and looking for a place to park," he recalls. "I said, well park in my driveway."
From there, it was just a short walk into Chuck's barroom, stocked with 300 bottles of whiskey, 80 types of vodka. "There were seven seats at the bar," he said. "I had a big bar and a lot of alcohol. "
Even the lifeguards would stop by after work (they also used his shower after their morning workouts, another Shore tradition now at risk as less generous newbies buy up beach block houses).
He and Debbie adapted, he said. Moving was exhausting, but life evolves. Chuck rides his bike to and from Dorset; Debbie walks. And all the schmoozing must happen on the beach, without the reliable spillover to the perennial porch cocktail hour. A little more pressure to get it all in, maybe. The reign continues, somewhat diminished.
"We used to get 30, 40 people," Leiber says. "One guy was hysterical crying because he loved my porch. A guy I met on the beach."