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Sustaining Variety in a Perfect World

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variety adjusted

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.”

A Step Back in Time at the Variety Store

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The outside display case of the Sag Harbor Variety Store looks more like a museum than a store front. In the left hand corner stands an antique Texaco gas pump, a wooden figurine of a baseball player and an old metal sign with the words “Ebbets Field” written on it. Over to the right, two life size cut-outs of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe are propped up against the window, though the figures of the stars are faded from years of sun exposure. Towards the front entrance, one finds old maps of the village and framed articles written about the store.
As customers pass through the threshold of the Variety Store, one has the sense of stepping back in time. A collection of antique tin containers, cigar boxes and old vintage posters hang on a shelf over the cash register. Reams of fabric and walls of buttons and ribbons are displayed in the back of the store, harkening back to a time when people made their own clothes. One section of the shop is devoted to yarn, which is on sale, and crocheting supplies. Another wall of the store is lined with fabric dye, paints, fake flowers for displays and greeting cards.
The Sag Harbor Variety shops remains one of the few stores on the East End where customers can satisfy a nostalgic need for crafting, but are also able to pick up household supplies, beach gear and holiday paraphernalia. Currently, the center display in the store is decked out with Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s day fare. The shelves are crammed with beaded necklaces, green tiaras, four leaf clover posters, purple and yellow feathered boas and glittery masks.
Purchasing merchandise for the holidays is Lisa Field’s favorite part of managing the Variety Store. Field’s parents, Roseann and Phil Bucking, bought the Variety store in 1970 and she grew up working in the store after school and during the summer.
“My brothers and I were always here,” said Field. “One of our first jobs was marking and stocking all of the back-to-school supplies and working the cash register.”
After Field completed college she returned home to help her parents manage the store. She helped them modernize the store operations by introducing vertical shelves and hanging merchandise, like pinatas, from the ceiling. Traditionally, items were placed in racks or on tables throughout the store and shelves were reserved for larger products like lampshades. Field also expanded the holiday section and moved it to the center aisle.
“Sometimes people come in here and say they know what holiday is coming up by what we are selling,” said Field.
As Sag Harbor transitioned into a resort and beach destination, Field adapted the merchandise by purchasing more beach supplies and Sag Harbor souvenirs. “We are not a trendy boutique,” she said. “But we do have to change with the times.”
In recent years, Field took over the role of general manager from her parents, but she always remembers their love of the Variety Store. Her mother Roseann is close to retirement age, but she still helps out in the shop from time to time. Field’s father Phil died last year, but worked in the store during the days leading up to his death. According to Field, her father loved being on Main Street and helping his customers.
“My parents never retired because they didn’t want to … My father loved talking with people and seeing the village change,” she remembered.
Phil was also responsible for putting the various antique items in the store’s front windows. Field reported her father was an avid collector and many of the old display items were things he had found in the village or had stored in his home. Other items, like the wooden statue of an Indian chief, were given to Phil as a present. He also installed the horse and fire truck ride, found outside of the store, for local children.
Although the Variety store has been in operation since 1922 – Field believes the store was originally located where Spinnakers Restaurant now stands – the shop has continued to change with the times without losing its old world charm.

Above: The St. Patrick’s Day display at the Sag Harbor Variety Store.