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Boardwalk Empire

Before the law, Joey Kroart helped run his family’s iconic Ocean City art gallery

Published in 2022 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine

Most people pushing 40 have settled into their careers. At 39, Joey Kroart upended his.

“When I got to law school,” he says, “my classmates who were 23, 24 years old said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re a full-time student, and you’re married, and you have two young kids, and you live almost three hours away? How are you doing this?’ I said, ‘When you have a family, you do what you have to do.’” 

That work ethic is something he picked up at his family’s iconic art store at Second and Boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. “Having a family business instills a certain work ethic,” Kroart says. “And when you have your own business, it’s your baby. You do everything for it. You don’t punch in and punch out—it’s your life. When you grow up with a business like that, that sort of work ethic becomes ingrained in you. I thank my father for that.” 

To the uninitiated, the bizarre, decoupage-style building might more closely resemble a carnival fun house than a gallery. But to the tourists who return to the Maryland coast each year, Ocean Gallery is the Boardwalk’s neon, boisterous core. The half-kitschy, half-tasteful, all-outrageous gallery brims with posters, prints, lithographs, memorabilia, paintings and knick-knacks. It’s the kind of place politicians get their picture taken during campaign season—including every Maryland governor from Harry Hughes through Martin O’Malley.

“It’s not one of those places where you have original works and the artists standing next to them,” Kroart says. “We did retail art. We sold everything from posters and inexpensive oil paintings to limited edition items that sold for several thousand dollars.”

When Kroart was 8, he and his brother were helping their father (often referred to as the “P.T. Barnum of the Art World”) run the store. When he was 12, they were on the cash registers. Later, as an adult, Kroart worked 12-hour shifts each summer season, from mid-May until late September. He’d close around 1 a.m., crawl into bed, then wake up the next day to do it all over again.

“As much as I was working,” Kroart says, “I didn’t have anyone to complain to because my father was working more than I was.”

Exemplifying the kitschy nature of their store is a car the family keeps parked beside the building: a homemade Batmobile. 

“My father had this ‘73 Dodge Charger, and I said to him, ‘That looks like a Batmobile. You ought to paint it black,’” Kroart says. “So he sent me to get some black spray paint and we painted it black. And then he put all sorts of random recycled things all over it and made it into a Batmobile. We pull it out of the garage every day and people still take photos with it. We’ve had the thing sitting there for over 30 years.”

When the business expanded to four stores, Kroart managed one of the other stores and handled transportation and supply issues. But he also continued to work at the original location on the boardwalk. 

“I saw some pretty crazy stuff over the years,” he says. “One day my father and I were standing near the front door talking, and a young woman walked up to a young guy and smacked him upside the head—I mean, she really smacked him. And my dad looked at me and he said, ‘Well, you know it’s summertime again in Ocean City when you see a woman smack a guy like that.’”

As much as Kroart enjoyed working with his father, his perspective changed once he became one himself. “I had gotten married and had two daughters, who were almost 3 and almost 1 when I started law school,” he says. “[Starting over] was a way of both providing opportunity for them, and also living a more normal lifestyle.” He says he also had an intellectual itch he wanted to satisfy.

When Kroart was sworn in at the Court of Appeals, his wife and father came along. “When I looked over, my wife was smiling and taking pictures,” he says. “I could see my dad, but he wasn’t taking pictures. He couldn’t because he was tearing up so bad. He was so proud.” 

All the experience Kroart gained running a four-store operation benefits him greatly now in dealing with clients on business matters. In one particular case his firm is handling, the president of an industrial wholesaler requested Kroart because they speak the same language: business. 

“He told me, ‘You’re like a translator. You explain their legalese to me, and then you can tell the litigators what my company’s needs are,’” Kroart says. “When he said that, I thought, ‘Here’s a client who values my input because he realizes that I’ve been on his side of the fence before.’

“Having a law degree is a great power to have,” he adds. “It’s a power to help people. And when you can help people that you care about, it gives you a very rewarding feeling.”

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