By Donald Wittkowski
As a high school student vacationing in Ocean City in the early 1970s, Arlene Voudouris wandered through the Flanders Hotel one day and found herself marveling over the retail shops that were tucked inside the historic building.
“I remember standing at the door, saying to myself, ‘Who would be lucky enough to have these shops in such a beautiful, historic hotel?’” the 61-year-old Voudouris recalled of what was a watershed moment in her life.
Call it fate, karma or perhaps just simple, good luck, but Voudouris is now the person she aspired to be when she first visited the Flanders some 40-plus years ago. She is the owner of The Shoppes at The Flanders.
She took over the three quaint shops eight years ago. She has turned the retail space into an eclectic mix of women’s clothing, accessories, shoes, jewelry, keepsakes and antiques. For the guys, she carries a whimsical line of neckties from the Museum Artifacts brand.
For fans of the Flanders, Voudouris also sells hotel-branded souvenirs, T-shirts, ornaments and bathrobes. The hotel, which opened in 1923, remains one of Ocean City’s iconic buildings.
When Voudouris started out, she specialized in gifts, antiques and jewelry, with some women’s accessories thrown in. But over the years, her shops have morphed into more of a women’s boutique that carries a variety of styles and sizes – from formal to beachy.
“I started out with one or two women’s items, and it evolved,” Voudouris explained. “That’s why we have so much inventory, because we appeal to all different people.”
One customer, Agnes Jonczak, of Bensalem, Pa., had a shopping bag filled with items she bought for herself and some Christmas gifts for her family. Jonczak, who was staying at the Flanders, was in Ocean City for a “ladies weekend trip” with the Philadelphia Court Jesters, a Masonic group.
“When we’re in town, we always look forward to shopping here,” Jonczak said. “This place is like going to the old Strawbridge’s in Philadelphia. The staff is so attentive. They also have so much variety. If you can’t find it here, you don’t have your eyes open.”
In addition to her brick-and-mortar operations, Voudouris ships merchandise to customers across the country. Online sales are not yet offered, but the proudly old-fashioned Voudouris said she is considering web business to expand her reach.
Hotel guests at the Flanders once made up a large part of Voudouris’ sales, but over the years her customer base has shifted more toward local residents and the owners of Ocean City vacation homes. She also has a steady flow of customers from Philadelphia who make weekend trips to the shore, she said.
The shops are clustered near the Boardwalk side of the Flanders, at the ocean end of 11th Street. Currently, they are open on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Voudouris plans to cut back to Friday, Saturday and Sunday after New Year’s Day. By April 1, Thursdays will be added again, and by May the shops will be open seven days a week for the start of the peak summer tourism season.
Underscoring Voudouris’ need for more space, there are racks of clothing, handbags and hats lining the hallway outside the shops. Voudouris plans to do some remodeling over the winter to feature the shops’ line of Comfy USA and IC Collection women’s clothing.
“We specialize in things that are comfortable and things that wear well,” she said. “If I find something I love, I sell it.”
Voudouris, who lives in the Media, Pa., area, is a former antiques dealer in Lancaster County, Pa. She noted that before she arrived at the Flanders eight years ago, the retail space was vacant when the hotel was under the control of a previous ownership group.
Her husband, Peter, bought the retail space, allowing her to transform the shops into what they are now. The Voudourises are part of a group that has revitalized the Flanders condo-hotel in recent years. Peter Voudouris serves as the hotel’s director of operations and board president.
“This is an exercise in passion and a little bit of insanity,” Arlene Voudouris said with a laugh, referring to the effort it takes to run the shops. “But we really have fun with the people.”