Bikes (and People) Get Second Chances At Second Life Bikes

Lester rides into the bike store on a Saturday afternoon in May. Leaning over his handlebars, he asks employee Pete Leather how much he owes him for a recent flat tire repair.

Immersed in another repair, Pete doesn’t answer immediately. With the frames and innards of bicycles surrounding him and wrench in one hand, he pauses his work.

Owner Kerri Martin, a former investment banker, looks over. She knows Lester is looking for work. She tells him this one’s on the house.

Second Life Bikes in Asbury Park is not just a business.

Owner Kerri Martin has a passion for teaching kids about bikes. . .and life.

Owner Kerri Martin has a passion for teaching kids about bikes. . . and life.

It’s been featured in Family Circle, the Star-Ledger and on national TV. Kerri runs the shop as well as a nonprofit whose mission is to impart life and job skills to local youth.

Kids older than age 11 can sign up to earn their own secondhand bikes by completing 15 hours of bike repair. More than 1,000 bikes crowd the former warehouse where Second Life is housed, near the Asbury Park train station on 21 Main Street.

What do you call a herd of bikes?

More than 1,000 bikes live at Second Life Bikes.

“It’s never boring here,” says the “Bike Lady” about the last four years. “We see real life happening.”

Kerri’s goal by the end of 2014 is to be a partial owner of the 7,500-square-foot building Second Life leases. Her efforts, including crowdfunding, have raised $50,000. She’ll be buying it as part of a real estate development corporation with other investors.

“It’ll be a smart business move,” she notes. Nobody on Second Life’s board knows much about biking except herself, she says. But “they liked that this is a grassroots effort.”

She points out the cruiser Bruce Springsteen bought and then donated, which hangs on the wall. Another cruiser (pictured) is being raffled off at RiverFest in Red Bank on the last weekend in May by Musicians on a Mission (MOAM), a local group of musicians who donate their talents to raising money for local charities.

To go home with a lucky winner at Red Bank's Riverfest this weekend, with raffle proceeds for Second Life Bikes.

Soon to go home with a lucky winner at Red Bank’s RiverFest –raffle proceeds to Second Life.

Last month MOAM raised money for Second Life Bikes with a music festival in Farmingdale, known as MOAM-A-PALOOZA.

The cruiser being raffled off has a partially functioning guitar, a Silvertone electric, permanently affixed to it, an idea Kerri and her small staff thought would be fun to build.

“Originally we were going to do a fake guitar, but a local musican donated this one,” Kerri says. The winning ticket for the raffle will be drawn Sunday June 1 at Marine Park in Red Bank.

Pete started as a volunteer but after being laid off asked Kerri if his volunteer work could be transformed into a permanent role at Second Life. Now he’s a happy corporate refugee.

“It’s less stress and less bucks,” he says.

Kerri, raised in Freehold, appreciates the kids’ enthusiasm for learning. Mainly 12 to 14-year-olds participate but also a few eager 11-year-olds who Kerri makes exceptions for, and dedicated older teens. They come in after school to fix their flats, while their elders can be “a little hesitant.”

“It’s not brain surgery,” she says, “It’s pretty intuitive to learn. If you can turn a wrench, you can do it.”

Kerri hopes to start a girls’ bike club. “The goal is to try to draw them in, especially the girls. We often lose them as teenagers. There’s nothing girls can’t do. The girls who come in are wonderful.”

Kerri has always loved cycling, and she rides all year long, using studded tires for riding in snow and ice. For her, it’s about enjoying being outside and not “trapped in a steel automobile sitting in traffic.”

“It’s not about being an environmentalist,” she adds, “I’m glad if it helps, but for me it’s fun.”




Defying the Odds, Retired Teacher Runs Community Bookstore

Remember how the hardworking indie bookstore owner, played by Meg Ryan, was crushed by the chain bookstore opening in her neighborhood in the 90s blockbuster “You’ve Got Mail”?

This story is different.

In 2007 Rita F. Maggio retired from teaching and opened BookTowne on Manasquan’s Main Street.

kidssectionbookstoreThe independent bookstore is a species so endangered that mega-author James Patterson has pledged to donate a million dollars to them. Yet BookTowne has become a destination for both national and local authors, and for book lovers, families and school communities.

Mary Higgins Clark will visit May 2nd, and Jane Green (Tempting Fate) May 1st.

BookTowne competes with Barnes & Noble in Brick, she notes, but does its best to hold its own. The owner loves being part of “a community where people support reading and books. Families are a good deal of our business.”

Although based in Manasquan, it’s not just seasonal traffic, Rita says. “The schools are great to work with.”

For a recent book signing by N.J. children’s book author Dan Gutman, approximately 200 people owner with local author shelf bookstoreattended. A New York Times listed author, Gutman pens the My Weird School series for middle-schoolers, with comical titles such as “Mr. Tony is Full of Baloney” and “Ms. Beard is Weird.”

A former middle school teacher, guidance counselor and school principal, Rita loves to spread the “joy of reading.”

“When someone writes a book,” she says, “They have a story to tell. It’s really important for independent bookstores to give them a venue. A local author may have a good quality piece and with some exposure, he or she can really take off.” She keeps local authors on her shelf for three months.

Open every day except for four major holidays, the store’s tag line is Where Good Friends Meet Good Books. Rita’s own tastes run to authors such as Anna Quindlin and Jumpira Lahira.

“I knew I wanted to be at the shore and I like the town of Manasquan itself,” Rita says. The Brielle library and the Algonquin Theatre lend their facilities for large book signings such as Gutman’s.

BookTowne, with three employees, generously supports local authors. But, it vets the books carefully before extending an invitation to an author. “We want to present good quality books. We don’t accept every local author. It has to be professionally done.” When she read “The Numb,” self-published by Lauren Kehoe, a 19-year-old student at Ocean County College, she was enthusiastic. It’s a dystopian novel set in a dark future in which emotions have ostensibly been eradicated.

“The Numb has done well here,” says Rita, gesturing to the shelf where a copy of the book is displayed.

frontdeskbookstoreBookTowne’s goal is to have one author reading a week. Winter’s a little harder, but with the help of an event planner and some networking, it’s attracted some best selling authors.

Rita notes, “It’s important when you own a small business to host the kind of events that bring people in.”

She actively supports her local business community. When big guns such as fought to avoid paying taxes for online sales, Rita traveled to Trenton to testify on behalf of local businesses.

“It’s about equity,” she explains. “We pay local and state sales taxes, and so should they. In some cases we can meet their prices, but it’s hard when they’re not paying taxes.”

The law passed, to her relief. “This makes it more fair.”

D n’ R Carpet Mill Goes the Distance With All Things Flooring

You might miss it if you drive quickly on Route 35. Tucked into the south end of Staples Plaza in Hazlet is a carpet and flooring store that has been around through 23 years of economic ups and downs, the comeback of hardwood flooring, the introduction of Pergo, and the big box invasion of home improvement centers.

carpetstoreownerAlthough it sells hardwood floors, laminates, and now luxury vinyl, carpet remains the most popular choice for flooring, and D n’ R Carpet Mill offers “blow out” prices, money back guarantees and a focus on keeping and training outstanding staff.

D n’ R (dependable and reliable) Carpet Mill was founded in 1991 and is owned by Middletown couple Michele and Joe Colonna. It offers carpet, linoleum, laminate, wood floors, remnants, expert installation and cleaning.

“Most of our clientele buys because they’ve heard of us,” notes Joe, “We’ve been here a while.” The business does a bit of cable and magazine advertising, and has an active Facebook page, but most of its business is repeat business.

What’s its secret?

carpetstore“Installation,” says Joe. “You can have good carpet, but if it’s not installed right, you’ll be unhappy.” He carefully trains his own installers and would rather delay a job than use someone he’s unsure of and risk an unhappy customer.

Michele and Joe enjoy volunteering in their hometown of Keansburg. A sign on their door from the Northern Monmouth Chamber of Commerce says they assisted “Beacon of Hope” with its storm recovery efforts for local residents.

“The local people support us,” says Joe. “So we want to help support them.”

Rook Coffee Roasters Does It Fresh


Everything about Rook says “We’re serious about coffee….”

When I first ventured into a Rook Coffee Roasters, I had to change my expectations about coffee bars.

There were no tables except for a counter at the window with coat hooks. No tea, no espresso drinks, no cooler with a million items to distract me, only a small baked goods selection. With a spartan interior, everything about Rook says, “We’re serious about coffee.” It’s a solo performance and the coffee’s the star.

“Most Americans are used to drinking stale coffee,” explains co-owner Holly Migliaccio. Across the street from Rook’s newest location on Route 35 in Oakhurst, there’s a bustling Starbucks. Yet the line at Rook spills out the door in the mornings. Maybe these people are onto something.

Migliaccio and her business partner, Shawn Kingsley, opened their first Rook Coffee Roasters on Monmouth Road in Oakhurst four years ago to bring some West Coast coffee appreciation to New Jersey. 


“At Rook, every single cup is brewed to order,” says co-owner Holly Migliaccio here demonstrating Rook’s “manual drip pour-over” method

The entrepreneur and mother of two likes Starbucks, she says, and has nothing against tea.

Rook knows its strategy well:

We want to be different,” she says. “We are experts at what we do. It’s our business model. Every single cup is brewed to order,” and “there are no urns of old  coffee sitting around.” The imported beans are roasted locally in a private “roastery,” and transported quickly to its four Monmouth County venues.

In less than a minute, the process is done. The beans are measured, ground, then transferred into a filter where steaming water is poured over them, and the coffee is poured into a cup and handed to the customer. This “manual drip pour-over” method is the “most simple way to make coffee, by hand.”  And, Migliaccio says, the difference in taste is unmistakeable.

Most of its clientele are return customers and Rook servers know their regulars. The shop has cultivated a loyal following that proudly displays its logo of a black crow, or rook, defined by Merriam Webster as “a common Old World gregarious crow.” “Rook piercing,” she notes, is piercing the upper ear cartilage.

The difference in taste is unmistakable

The difference in taste is unmistakable

The owners, both Shore Regional High School graduates, ended up in New York City after college, she in sales and marketing; he, a trader and analyst. They each tired of the city grind (sorry!) and wanted to return to the shore. She quit her job at age 30 and traveled in Asia for three months. When she returned to N.J., he suggested the idea of a specialty coffee shop and she loved it. Now they have 47 employees and a full-time corporate trainer to make sure the employees get the mechanics and the service right.

“We set the bar for our customer experience extremely high,” she says.

Rook does no traditional advertising, relying strictly on word of mouth and social media marketing. The owners contribute to their local community by donating to schools and gift auctions.

View video how Holly and Shawn sourced their coffee from hundreds of choices in Central America and also see a clip about their business story that was part of a larger documentary, Growing up America.

You can sample a handcrafted cup of coffee, organized from mild to dark, at Rook’s four locations, two in Oakhurst, and one in Long Branch and at the Little Silver train station, where baristas time their production to the train schedules.

Just don’t ask for a cappuccino.


For Yarn Lovers, Moore Yarn Opens At Airport Plaza in Hazlet, NJ


Mitzy Moore, proprietor of "Moore Yarn"

Mitzy Moore, proprietor of “Moore Yarn”

Mitzy Moore learned to knit in school, but didn’t care for it until she became inspired by the Vogue Knitting event in New York City.

“The fashion shows, the beautiful yarns from all over the world–you can do so much that’s exciting,” she said. Her new store, Moore Yarn in Keyport, showcases several of her stunning projects.

Designed as a retreat for “knitters and hookers (that is, those who crochet),” the store features a “man cave” with a television, WiFi hotspot and coffee, monthly “Knibble and Knit” get-togethers and “yarn tasting” events (January features Classic Elite yarn). A “Men’s Closet Knitters’ Club” will encourage men to pick up hooks and needles. A mobile knitting truck, “Yarn on Wheels,” is in the works, which will visit fairs, libraries and nursing homes.

The Color and Creative Atmosphere at Moore Yarn in Hazlet

The Color and Creative Atmosphere at Moore Yarn in Hazlet

We’re building “a hub for lovers of yarn,” said Cliff Moore, Mitzy’s co-owner. The couple also owns the Keyport IHOP and Hazlet Swim Club’s Bellyflop Cafe. Both are tireless local business promoters who give back by helping local causes. Moore Yarn has teamed up with the Linus Project to make hats and blankets for premature babies and seniors.

The store was opened in only 45 days, Mitzi recounted. Years before, she’d casually mentioned to Cliff that she’d love to run a yarn store.

When Cliff told her about a vacancy at Airport Plaza, most recently occupied by Corey Booker’s Congressional campaign, she didn’t hesitate, although the space required massive cleaning and renovation to become the bright, colorful interior that Mitzy lovingly presides over.

“Everything just fell into place.”

Lenora’s Café Offers “American Twist” on Classic Recipes


Lenora’s Cafe Provides a Cozy Atmosphere

Lenora Cortes immigrated from a small coastal town near Mexico City and then realized what she wanted out of life.

“When I came here, I discovered a love of cooking,” says Lenora, a soft-spoken entrepreneur who took time from her Thanksgiving preparations to tell me the café’s story.

After a decade of waitressing and toiling in restaurant kitchens, she and her husband Francisco, who had a son by then, came to a conclusion:

“We should put our ideas on the table,” she said.

The aspiring restaurateurs joined forces with her brother José Jimenez and a neighbor and trusted friend, Lisa Leon, the café’s business manager. They found a location they liked.

Fast forward five years, and you can order “Tinga,” shredded chicken with olives and onions simmered thick and Chipotle sauce, grilled “Steak Veracruz,” or “Pork Pernil Asado,” slow roasted pork with avocado salsa, at Lenora’s Café, a local favorite on Keyport’s lively Front Street.

The eatery is in many ways a community affair, where customers are treated as family and given input into new dishes before they’re added to the menu.

Lenora’s passion for cooking, experience in food service and appreciation for fresh ingredients make it special. She prides herself on offering “little American twists” to Mexican classics such as ranchero eggs, for which “people go crazy,” she says as well as dishes that are more unusual here, such as Tinga.

French Toast - a Lenora's Breakfast Specialty!

French Toast – a Lenora’s Breakfast Specialty!

Unless requested, she offers a “less picante” version of classic dishes—not all of Mexican origin–to her diverse clientele. People come for the all-day breakfast that includes specialties like “Crunchy French Toast,” and eggs and chilaquiles– fried corn tortilla strips, tomatoes, onions and cheese. In the kitchen, I watched Francisco expertly flip French toast and sprinkle fresh bananas and toppings over the steaming bread for the final presentation.

Lenora's Seasonal Desserts Provide a Nice Finish to a Good Meal

Lenora’s Seasonal Desserts Provide a Nice Finish to a Good Meal

A local group of seniors have made a large table near the window a part of their weekday routine and Lenora loves sitting with them when she can take a few minutes from her nonstop day. Other times she can be seen amiably chatting, coffeepot in hand, with the regulars who gather at the counter to trade local news; making apple pies in the kitchen; or meeting with Lisa to discuss new ideas over breakfast.

“My imagination is always working,” she says about her menu, which takes its cues from the seasons. “I like to change spices with the time of year. Summer is for more fresh and crispy foods, winter is good for warm and soft foods that stick to your bones. Comfort foods.”

Keyport has “very friendly people” and has always made them feel at home, she says, gesturing to a wall where the owners hosted a recent exhibit of local paintings.

“I like to learn customers’ names,” Lenora says, “They’re my family.”

She, Francisco and José support town events and local schools and frequently donate gift certificates. Lenora’s is open seven days a week, with dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays, and Lenora rarely takes a full day off, Lisa says, shaking her head fondly.

The owners make sure their well-trained servers try all the dishes too, so they can answer culinary questions. Every spring, Lenora and Lisa adjust the menu, adding and dropping offerings, after hosting a popular “Sampling Night” during which customers get tastes of new dishes, buffet style.

If you want to see what will be served in the next year at Lenora’s Café, come to Sampling Night in May and pay attention to the dishes that go quickly.

Say hi to Lenora while you’re there.


Potter Offers Handmade Creations on Asbury Boardwalk

Asbury Park boardwalk has  weathered many ups and downs

Asbury Park boardwalk has weathered many ups and downs

Will Asbury Park’s long-awaited, oft-failed renaissance finally happen this time?

If it does, Greg LaPlaca, owner of LaPlaca Pottery Works, will be one of the people to thank. He’s been selling pottery and other handmade goods for eight years in Asbury and he is a proud member of  this “little community.”

“We need to keep it local, boutiquey,” says the Belmar-born potter. “That’s what makes it Asbury. I know a lot of my customers.” If chain stores move in to the town, “Why come here over any other beach?”

The entrepreneur, teacher and artist sold his wood-fired and pit-fired creations in Asbury Park and Point Pleasant until Superstorm Sandy rolled through in October 2012.

LaPlaca with one of his unique Face Jugs

LaPlaca with one of his unique Face Jugs

He’d moved his Asbury store from Cookman Avenue to the boardwalk in 2007, then got clobbered by Sandy five years later. After the store flooded, he was forced to rip out the sheetrock and rebuild. Insurance covered nothing because the damage came from the ocean, excluded from his coverage, which he’s since cancelled. No power and a curfew shut down his pottery classes in Point Pleasant. He now uses his Point location as a workshop. Asbury, though, is completely open, and LaPlaca is hoping for a strong summer season to make up for the many lost months of traffic while the boardwalk was closed.

“The worst thing was the town put a fence up and left it, putting me out of business until April,” he said. He had some tables in convention hall, but still lost Christmas business.

LaPlaca’s store was recognized as “best of NJ” for gift shops by New Jersey Monthly magazine in 2011 and 2012 and by the Asbury Park Press Readers’ Choice contest for favorite art gallery in 2012. Ninety percent of the store’s offerings he makes himself. His mother produces quilted and crocheted bags that LaPlaca sells along with his seaglass jewelry, (Asbury Park icon) ‘Tillie’ memorabilia and his own photography. Novelty soaps come from visits to a brother living in Hawaii.

LaPlaca keeps his prices as low as he can

LaPlaca keeps his prices as low as he can

One customer favorite has a rich Southern history. “Ugly Jugs” were created in the 19th century with human-looking eyeballs and teeth to scare children away from the moonshine typically stored in them. Pottery with faces dates back to Egyptian times, LaPlaca says.

LaPlaca has tried to create things made to order, but quickly felt constrained by that. “I’m always changing what I do; I get bored,” he says. Besides, creating copies is not the point. “All my stuff is unique.”

“I’m a handmade in America potter. I can’t compete with imports, it cheapens everything else in the store.” He tries to keep his prices affordable. A mug is $20 and a majority of the store’s items cost less than $50, he adds, and many less than $10.

LaPlaca says he’s committed to his beach location, although others questioned his decision to locate in a tourist town even before the storm and the last two months of erratic weather have been rough on his business.

He loves being there anyway.

“We all know each other here, and a few of us who were early got the ball rolling,” he says of his fellow business owners. “We’re working so hard and we took our lumps. It’s a critical summer for us. We have a real community.”

He’s confident that this time, Asbury Park will make it back. “There’s way too much momentum this time.”




Livoti’s Old World Market Serves Up Pasta, Gravy and Great Service To Locals

Livoti's Market - Local Market Serving Up Old-World Charm

Livoti’s Market – Local Market Serves Up Old-World Charm

At Livoti’s Old World Market in Aberdeen, New Jersey, I bought some salted mozzarella for my aunt. She’s a first generation Italian-American, so my aunt has standards.

“We’re famous for our handmade hand-stretched mozzarella,” general manager Michael (aka Big Mike) Ali claims. Mike married the daughter of owner John Livoti.

Livoti’s is celebrating its three year anniversary and although it’s smaller than the two big box groceries that share the same half mile stretch of Route 34 in Aberdeen, it strives to match their prices on packaged items.

Livoti's Famous Mozzarella Station

Livoti’s Famous Mozzarella Station

“We’re a specialty market so not competing with them, but we don’t want people to have to go somewhere else to find affordable paper towels,” says Mike, who walks around bantering amiably  with employees and customers and tweaking shelves that already look quite neat. “We straighten everything every night before we close.”

A woman shopping with her husband tells Mike how much she enjoys the store’s Sunday afternoon Italian music concerts. He smiles and offers her a string bean to sample.

“I might not know everyone by name but I recognize most of their faces. We treat them personally and if there’s a problem we take care of it.” A third of its customers are from Matawan/Aberdeen, he notes, a fourth from Marlboro and Morganville, and the rest from towns such as Freehold and Woodbridge in surrounding areas.

Local Customers Love Livoti's and Big Mike

Local Customers Love Livoti’s and Big Mike

“Most are very local–which is great,” Mike says.

The store features a relentless focus on customer service; an abundance of mouth-watering items made fresh daily (95 percent of its takeout) under head chef Hani Qassis; and a full range of Italian staples and delicacies. You can watch Alphonzo at work in the mozzarella station creating salted, smoked and unsalted versions of the beloved cheese.

Yet Livoti’s reaches beyond traditional Italian cuisine to also offer new (gluten free and organic) and more Americanized fare. Although my grandparents may have viewed the chocolate peanut butter cake in the bakery with suspicion, they’d choose the traditional Italian rum cake and pignoli cookies nearby to serve on Christmas. There’s also a coffee bar, fresh seafood market, deli and enough custom-cut meats, poultry and store-made sausage to please any red-blooded carnivore—with a new organic and grass-fed meats case that Mike proudly points out.

Made Fresh Daily! (We know you want to try it!)

Made Fresh Daily! (We know you want to try it!)

Livoti’s donates generously to local sports teams and “as many causes as we can.” It was the only place open after Hurricane Sandy and sold hot takeout at every meal, prompting visits from as far away as Sayreville, Mike says.

“After Sandy was a very busy week,” he says. “We donated more than 2,000 pounds of cooked pasta and sauce to churches in Union Beach.”

The mayor of Sayreville even asked the owner to open a Livoti’s there. There is a new location coming that Mike will only reveal is in Monmouth County.


Livoti’s Fresh Handmade Mozzarella

What’s my aunt’s verdict on the handmade mozzarella, at $7.99 a pound? “Just a taste, I already ate,” then, a minute later, “I’ll try a little more,” then, “You can tell it’s handmade, it has ‘give.’ It’s not too salty. Light. Very good,” finally, “Like your grandmother’s.”

That says it all.


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