The Sag Harbor Express
“Sustaining Variety in a Perfect World,” By Claire Walla
Lisa Field was manning the register at the back of the Sag Harbor Variety Store one recent Thursday afternoon when an old man, awkwardly holding a small piece of insulated fabric, approached the counter.
Do you have any Velcro?” the man asked skeptically.
Without missing a beat, Field reached over to a shelf behind her and pulled on a large spool of the sticky material.
“Do you want sew-on?” she asked, holding it up.
The man looked down at the kidney-shaped piece of fabric lying limp in his hands, somewhat puzzled. “I don’t know what I want,” he admitted.
Field picked up the piece of fabric and ran a small, thumb-sized strip of Velcro along the ends of two flaps on the sides of what turned out to be a winter coat, sized perfectly for the man’s Jack Russell Terrier.
“I think you’re going to want to sew it on right here, so it will last,” she pointed. Then she measured a half-yard (the store’s minimum), which came out to $2.17.
The man only needed a fraction of that amount, but he seemed pleased nonetheless. “Now I’ve got 12 years’ worth of Velcro!”
According to Lisa Field, whose parents Phil and Roseann Bucking bought the Sag Harbor Variety store in 1970, this sort of exchange happens all the time.
“People come here expecting that we’re going to have what they want,” she said.
Indeed, throughout the course the conversation, Field helped eight different customers find everything from pieces of fabric and tape measures to wool socks. Whether it’s Velcro, construction paper, yo-yos, sock darners, strawberry hullers or—simply—a single spool of thread, chances are the Variety Store’s got it.
And while you might expect as much from a store founded on the concept being able to carry everything its customers might want (without getting luxurious), this local one-stop-shop is somewhat of a rarity. Take sewing notions and fabrics, for instance. Field said these items are one of the store’s biggest draws; not because they’re trendy or cutting edge, but because they’re basic. And “not many people sell those things anymore.”
The Variety Store harks back to a different time in American history; a time before the Internet and before big box stores, when populations of people congregated around their Main Street, which inevitably cut through the center of town, because that’s where they went for all the basic things they needed to survive: the grocery store, the hardware store, the Laundromat… the local Five and Dime.
Sag Harbor has seen many iterations of change over the years, economic shifts that — for better or worse — have changed the make-up of Main Street. And yet, 90 years after the first Five and Dime opened in Sag Harbor, the Variety Store remains remarkably the same. The front entrance is still marked by a mechanical pony, which still costs only 25 cents to ride, and on inside you’ll find the same configuration of aisle ways, even the same configuration of lampshades against the back wall that existed at least as far back as the 1950s.
Sag Harbor Village Mayor Brian Gilbride, who grew up in Sag Harbor, said he remembers the Variety Store from his youth, when it was more commonly called the Five and Ten and was owned by a Mr. Hansen.
“He had a little office upstairs where he could look out and make sure kids weren’t stealing anything,” Gilbride recalled with a chuckle.
Sag Harbor was different then, he said. Not only were there were more local businesses scattered throughout town, but they were an integral part of the community. Gilbride said he remembers when Mr. and Mrs. Korsak ran Korsak’s Deli on Madison Street where Cilantro’s is now (he still refers to it as Korsak’s), and when Stan Bubka ran the butcher shop close by.
“All that’s changed,” he added.
And while Gilbride said he believed Sag Harbor is weathering the current economic crisis relatively well, he recognized that family-run businesses have been largely affected by this change.
“The bigger chain stores are making it difficult for the mom and pops to survive.”
According to a Sag Harbor Express poll, 45 percent of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: I do most of my basic shopping on Main Street. This means less than 50 percent of the local population is estimated to be shopping locally on a regular basis.
“In my case, I’ll sometimes spend a little more money to stay right here in the village [to shop],” Gilbride added. “But, it’s hard for some people. Maybe when I fully retire I won’t be able to do that anymore, either. These are tough times.”
So far, the Variety Store seems relatively shielded from the current strain of closing businesses. According to that same Express poll, 89 percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: I regularly shop at the Variety Store.
Perhaps the most important advantage the Variety Store has is that the Bucking family owns the building on Main Street where the Variety Store currently stands. It happened by chance, as Field tells it. Her parents only intended to purchase the business itself, because it was all they could afford. But, at the last minute, they struck a deal with the building’s owner, allowing them to pay for the property gradually over time.
“In hindsight,” Field continued, “had that not happened, we wouldn’t be here today.”
However, this doesn’t mean the shop is impervious to market conditions.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the store now, as Field sees it, is the notion that the Bay Street Theatre might leave the village of Sag Harbor.
“I think it could be devastating,” she said.
She compared the current climate in Sag Harbor — namely the worry over the potential loss of its arts institution — to the closing of the Bulova Watchcase Factory in 1981, which caused many permanent residents to move out of Sag Harbor to find work elsewhere.
Field said the store managed to recover quickly from those losses when — as luck would have it — the boom in the tourist industry swiftly took hold of the town.
“Thank God for the tourism!” Field exclaimed. “Because that’s what’s ridden us through [the tough economy].”
“Things go in cycles,” she continued.
For this reason, Field said she’s excited by the construction of the Bulova condos, because she imagines they’ll bring a whole new crop of people to the village. However, she realizes that the future of the Variety Store is dependent on a slew of competing forces.
While the store has managed to find success in the wake of big-box superstore Kmart opening up in Bridgehampton 12 years ago, shopping habits have changed dramatically since her family took over the business in 1970.
“It was a different time then,” she said. “If you needed something, you just went downtown to get it. Now, everyone can order things online — people don’t think anything of hopping in the car to drive to Riverhead to go load-up on stuff.”
This is a reality nearly every business owner on Main Street must contend with in some way.
However, as far as business owner Linda Sylvester — who owns Sylvester & Co. on Main Street directly across form the Variety Store — is concerned, stores like the Sag Harbor Variety have a great deal of staying power.
“The species as a whole remains constant, no matter how technology evolves,” she said. “Shopping is completely emotional, it’s social. I don’t think going to Walmart is very satisfying, even if it’s cheap.”
Shopping, she continued, is not just the accumulation of goods. It’s a chance to be a part of a community, to hear voices and engage in conversations — in a way, it’s also an adventure. As she sees it, not only does the Variety Store carry basic items needed to run a household, physically it’s a maze of shelves brimming with a discordant array of trinkets and oddities that trigger an emotional reaction in many of its customers.
“I think the Dime Store should be considered a shrine,” she mused. “People go there every day to worship at it.”
She continued, “The Dime Store is an example of what’s old is new again. There’s a certain amount of sustainability and humanness that’s lacking in the corporate world.”
In the grand scheme of things, she said Sag Harbor Village has managed to preserve a strong sense of community. But, as for what the future holds, Sylvester can see the balance potentially shifting.
“I think Sag Harbor has a longer run than most of the Hampton villages because so many people on Main Street own their own buildings,” Sylvester explained. “When that cycles out, Sag Harbor will go the way of East Hampton [Village]” — which is filled with Manhattan-based retailers, many of whom close-up shop in the winter months — “And that will be a sad day.”
Sag Harbor resident Eric Cohen believes Sag Harbor has already lost some of the character that made it so appealing when he and his wife, Bobbie, moved to the area in 1979.
“Bobbie and I came here because it was kind of funky and run-down, and we liked that feeling,” Cohen explained. “We didn’t want to be living in one of the flashy parts of the Hamptons.”
While he said Sag Harbor will probably never mirror the change he’s witnessed in East Hampton Village, he said he thinks Sag Harbor Village is beginning to become a version of that. Ultimately, he’s worried that the increasing cost to rent will start to drive more small business owners off Main Street, and that rising property values will pressure building owners to put their buildings up for sale and cash-out for hefty profits.
Field said she has no intentions of leaving Main Street, or changing the Variety Store. In fact, when asked whether or not she would consider selling her building, she grimaced — “I don’t even want to think about it!” she said.
“My earliest memories are of the store,” Field began. “I remember when I was 10, my brothers and I would go into the basement and mark the back-to-school items. And now my kids have all done that.”
Field has thee children, as well as nieces who have all worked at the store. She said she has no idea whether or not one of them will be so inclined to take-on the family business; but, she has no intention of going anywhere.
“As long as all the independent stores are here, I think that Sag Harbor will still have a vibrant Main Street and a good community,” she said. “Of course, 50 years from now, if we’re the only store here, it’s not going to be a vibrant Main Street.”
But Field chooses not to dwell on such things.
“In a perfect world, I’d keep the Variety Store open forever!” she said with a big grin. “And Conca D’Oro would be right across the street and the Wharf Shop would down the way… Because I think what we have is great. And, yeah, in a perfect world I’d keep it that way.”