By Robert Austin
On Friday afternoon April 16th at approximately 3 p.m., Joseph Benzola locked the door of Metaphysical Books and Tools for the last time and walked away. Forever. After eight years Joe could no longer afford to keep the store going. In the last few weeks of the store’s life Joe had put everything on sale, slashing prices in half.
The store, which had been a lonely outpost for Mr. Benzola for many months suddenly teemed with excitement, people walking away with armfuls of books or CDs, incense or the wood icon of Hindu goddesses. They bought large candles for a dollar and “The Films of Ingmar Bergman” for twenty and on and on and on. When the sale ended Joe Benzola packed the remaining stock into several boxes and then into a station wagon until the store was entirely bare.
How had it happened?
Metaphysical Books was open for business at 83 Main Street, six days a week for almost 30 years. It was one of many local businesses that have made Sag Harbor’s commercial center very different from every other town in the Hamptons. No chain stores, no flagship stores for large brands and other designer stores that exist only to display items that will be bought elsewhere. And, for now, no 30,000 square foot CVS where the 7-Eleven stands.
The question is, was Metaphysical Books the leading edge of a trend or merely an anomaly of poor timing and bad luck.
The movie theater is for sale. Romany Gallery was approached by Starbucks. Other stores have disappeared and some limited hours because they have few, if any, customers out of season.
In the case of Metaphysical Books the reasons for its early success and ultimate failure are fairly straightforward.
“A 30 percent decline over the last 12 months and a 60 percent drop in the winter combined with the financial crises. It was a perfect storm of bad news for the store,” Joe Benzola said,
And then there is the Internet.
“Internet sources like Amazon and iTunes took away business by offering books and music at enormous discounts, often well below my wholesale costs,” he said.
Had something about the store changed, we wondered. What had he done with the store when he bought it?
“When I bought the store, I changed it from a typical new age store to what became a cultural center for artists and lovers of the arts who enjoyed discovering uncommon items. An Albert Ayler or John Coltrane box set or films by independent film makers the likes of Kenneth Anger or rare recorded performances by blues players from the first and second generation of that genre.”
The store was, for many people, the singular source of uncommon books, art, musical instruments, incense, rare CD and vinyl recordings, candles, crystals and more. An eclectic array of merchandise not usually found in stores of its type.
There was always music playing softly in the background when you walked in. Often music you hadn’t heard in a long time, if ever. And the stuff was all there, out in the open, where you could touch it, read the liner notes or a few pages of a book, smell a scented candle or soap and sometimes talk to Joe about whatever it was. The store was a mirror of Joe’s own wide ranging interests, he was usually able to discuss objects in question or the field they covered.
And there were the people you’d run into in the store. People you knew or complete strangers. People with a passion for Bhudism or an ear for Mingus or an interest in some subject you’d never even heard of. People often talked to each other in Metaphysical Books. It was, many felt, an oasis, away from the maelstrom of the Main Street scene.
But much of the new age stuff didn’t sell well. The incense sold a bit. But less so the books about telekenisis or Angel Charms made of soapstone.
Another issue Benzola raised were the rents.
“Sag Harbor is turning into what East Hampton was,” he told us. “Rents suddenly going from $11,000 a month to $30,000.”
I talked to other store owners on Main Street. Most were under some financial stress. It had not been a great year for anybody.
But we found optimism, too, among the owners. Many had the feeling that business was about to turnaround and were determined to persevere.
As for Joe Benzola, his immediate plans are uncertain. He said he would take a breather and then, one possibility he was thinking about was creating an online store, dealing in some of the same items that the store was prized for.
Soon enough, there will be another store to take the place of Metaphysical Books. A clothing store is rumored. But for now all that remains is a spooky emptiness, where only yesterday the shelves were overflowing.