WILDWOOD — The summer season, those crucial months that sustain seaside towns like this, was just starting when Rita Best died of kidney disease in June.
The Wildwood native had worked for most of her 81 summers, first in her parents' candy stores and then, after marrying at age 19, in the businesses she and husband Jerry operated for a half-century.
And in her last days, when the pain was often unbearable, it was memories of one of the Bests' enterprises, a tiny boardwalk store, that comforted her and her family.
"The only way we came through it was the Fun Shop," said Sammy Best, the oldest of her four children. "My sisters and I sat there and laughed at stuff that no one else would ever believe."
They remembered the knee-buckling electric shocks customers got when opening fake playing-card cases, the crimson rashes produced by the fiberglass itching powder. They talked about the obscene lapel-button inscriptions, the items in the Over 21 Department, the fake dog poop.
"You'd have litigation if you sold that stuff now," said Linda Shaen, a lawyer who's the oldest of three Best daughters.
There were no lawsuits – though a guy who got angry when invisible ink temporarily stained his new white shirt once threatened one. Instead, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, vacationers flocked to the Fun Shop, perhaps the wackiest and tackiest store in Wildwood boardwalk history.
"I run into people all the time who, when I mention the Fun Shop, they're like, `Oh, my God, my happiest memory as a kid was going there,'" said Shaen.
In 100-plus years, Wildwood's famous boardwalk has transitioned from respectability to raucous kitsch. Most of its better restaurants and carpeted gift shops have vanished, replaced by stores peddling tasteless T-shirts, fried Oreos, and tattoos.
The Fun Shop, crammed from floor to ceiling with magic tricks, pranks, posters, masks and X-rated novelties, straddled both eras. It was clean and well-ordered enough for the old boardwalk, coarse enough for the new.
"Stone Harbor and Avalon look down on the boardwalk," said Sammy, 61, "but they still bring their kids there. There's nothing like it anywhere. And the Fun Shop fit right in. It was a risque Spencer's Gifts long before Spencer's Gifts."
The Bests bought it in 1963. A Navy veteran with a huckster's flair, Jerry turned a tame magic-and-novelty store into a weirdly whimsical and wildly popular place.
"It used to get so crowded, there would be logjams," said Shaen, 58.
They sold it in 1977, after which it lingered briefly in a few locations and finally disappeared.
I worked there two college summers as a clerk, demonstrating tricks, pranking unsuspecting customers, smiling throughout my 10-hour shift.
The place was catnip for nearly everyone. The Four Tops and Fats Domino visited when they played the Hurricane or Surf Club, usually in search of the masks Best got from a Hollywood manufacturer.
A big neon clown's face shone over the store's entrance, where a nickel nailed to the floor tempted and, ideally, mortified patrons. Walking inside, you might find a magic show in progress, or have a clerk in a Frankenstein mask ask if you needed help.
Visitors were especially drawn to a suspended signboard displaying large buttons. Since their inscriptions tended to be profane or sexually suggestive, Best hung an eye-level warning that was universally ignored — "Reading Buttons Out Loud Prohibited."
"Even though in those days you didn't do that, everybody insisted on reading them aloud," Shaen said. "After a while, my dad would yank the sign out of the ceiling and say, `That's enough buttons for tonight.'"
If you were an adult – and Best often dressed employees in police-like uniforms to check IDs – you could visit the Over 21 Department. In the rear of the store, the owner demonstrated the Women's Foam Companion apron.
Wearing the apron, Best would shout that it came in "chocolate, orange, lemon-lime, tutti-frutti, and ba-naaaaaaa-na." Its unzipping, which concluded each nightly performance, left nothing to the imagination.
"We sold so many that after a while my father said, `I could make these myself for $1.50 and sell them for $20,'" Sammy recalled. "So all winter long, he had the church ladies in Wildwood sewing these things on their Singer sewing machines."
Though merchandise like that could be risky in those pre-Woodstock years, police never bothered the Fun Shop.
"We lived there year round and between him and my grandfather, they knew enough cops," said Sammy. "And the cops knew it wasn't porno."
Crude humor sold. There were also Poo-Poo Cushions, fake vomit, and the Mannequin Boy, a drink dispenser that delivered the liquid through the boy's … well, you get the idea.
A big, impetuous man who smoked and fretted, Best left the paperwork and the store's décor to Rita, his more refined wife.
"What did she think of the place? Let's just say she loved my dad," said Sammy.
Winters were spent hunting the next novelty trend. In the mid-1960s, Best hit on one. His was the first boardwalk shop to carry the posters that soon were ubiquitous in baby boomer bedrooms.
Some of the shop's clerks were lifeguards by day, one so blond that the quirky owner insisted he wear a German helmet. Bruce Willis worked there. So did several street-smart South Philly teens. Two of them, recognizing a couple of suburban softies in me and a Pittsburgh-area colleague, got us drunk one night and took our entire paychecks in a dubious poker game.
The margin for any boardwalk-shop owner is slim, and for Best, who only ever relaxed at a casino or horse track, a slow Fun Shop day could darken his mood.
"That came from working 16 hours a day," said Shaen. "When he'd get mean like that, he'd go in the back, take a nap, and be fine when he woke up."
Customers were so loyal that for decades following the store's demise, vacationers would visit the former location and ask where the shop had moved.
Best's daughter recalled that early in her law practice, she appeared before a judge who upon hearing her name, asked if she were related to "the guy who owned the boardwalk shop where I used to buy smoke bombs."
The couple later bought a flower shop that was Rita's domain. Jerry made the deliveries, stopping at casinos when in range of Atlantic City. But he never recaptured that Fun Shop buzz.
He died at 62 in 1990 after suffering a fourth heart attack.