Let’s Bring Capitalism To America’s Beaches

America is a paradise for consumers. We can satisfy just about any consumer desire that strikes our fancy, even if it’s 3 a.m. on a holiday weekend. The one big exception to this rule is on our beaches, where most of the time we’re forced to lug coolers, chairs, umbrellas, beach toys and anything else we’ll need. There are some exceptions to this rule, but at many beaches around the country municipal restrictions prohibit entrepreneurs from renting chairs and umbrellas on the beach or selling food or drinks.

This point was driven home for us on a recent visit to the Cape Cod National Seashore (CCNS) in Massachusetts. The CCNS is a glorious 40-mile stretch of sand that encompasses six beaches. We were there in late August – peak season – and had to park about a mile away from the entrance to Marconi Beach. I pulled up to drop off our gear – we had no chairs or umbrellas – so it wasn’t that much effort to carry our cooler and my children’s beach toys.

But other people, particularly seniors, who were schlepping all kinds of stuff looked like they were ready to pass out from the exertion of hauling their gear in the heat. There are no chairs or umbrellas for rent at this beach and I didn’t see any food or drink for sale. The result of this dynamic is that 90 percent of beachgoers cluster right at the bottom of the stairs leading down from the parking lot.

Right at the bottom of the stairs the beach was absolutely jam packed with people so close that their towels practically touched. I know that some like to people watch and be where the action is, but I was happy to keep walking for about ten minutes to reach a spot where we had the place all to ourselves. The video that accompanies this post illustrates the crazy dynamic of this beach – it’s enormous but 90 percent of it is empty because people don’t want to haul their gear very far.

The weird dynamic at this and many other American beaches is in stark contrast to the way beaches are set up in many other parts of the world. We spent several weeks in the Greek islands earlier this year, and there, all of the most popular beaches have either chairs and umbrellas for rent at a reasonable price or cafes and tavernas with the same – right on the beach.

I’m usually the last person to argue for public spaces to be given over to commercialization. In fact, I get really sick of how we’re constantly bombarded with advertising and sales pitches here, even when we’re going to the bathroom in some cases. But I have to admit: I love having the option of renting a lounge chair and umbrella at a beach. And if there is reasonably priced food and drink available – even better.

If you’re visiting a beach close to your home, bringing your own gear is less of a pain, but when you visit a beach on vacation, bringing your own chairs, umbrellas and cooler isn’t very practical.

In late May, we were at a beach bar near Lecce, in Italy, where the lounge chairs and thatched roof shelters were free if you ordered a meal. In Italy, you can always eat well and I had a linguini with clam sauce dish that was out of this world for 7€, right from the comfort of my beach chair. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, but couldn’t help but wish we had the same sort of beach café culture here in the U.S.

That said, I do like my peace and quiet at the beach, so I am not enamored of countries that allow roving vendors to aggressively hawk their wares on the beach. And beach bars that play music so loud that you can’t hear the waves are a plague. No, I don’t want to turn our beaches into shopping malls or discos, I just want to have the option of not hauling chairs, umbrellas, and coolers. With our economy still a mess, municipalities around the country should be thinking about how to create opportunities for entrepreneurs that want to fill this void.