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Aug 27, 2019 11:10 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Legacy Businesses Anchor Southampton Village District

Travis Corwin, fifth generation of owner since 1879, at Corwin’s Jewelers on Main Street.  JULIA HALSEY
Sep 9, 2019 1:46 PM

Strolling through Southampton Village, shoppers walk past familiar businesses that have as much history as the village itself. But for every family-owned storefront, there’s a handful of shops the village has never seen before — with some never to be seen again after Labor Day.It’s no news that rent prices are rising in business districts across the East End. Summer pop-up shops have always had a presence, but even some year-round retail staples have been lost, like Twist, a tween clothing store on Jobs Lane, which, after 17 years, closed its doors in January. Chain retail spaces like Vineyard Vines and Pottery Barn are opting out of renewing their leases.

This begs the question: What exactly is driving some businesses out of Southampton Village, while others have been able to survive for decades?

The assumption is that the high cost of rent to run a year-round business in Southampton Village is to blame. But even family-owned and -operated businesses, like Herrick Hardware, a Main Street staple since 1865, are noticing a change in the market in the digital age.

Owner Noel Hare said he believes online retailing is a reason for a decrease in sales over the last three years at the hardware store.

“I think that business is spread out more … and the competition is mostly online,” he said. “It’s not about price anymore — it’s about convenience of home delivery.”

Hare’s co-owner and wife, Deborah Herrick Hare, whose great-grandfather opened the store in 1865, added that the presence of vacant storefronts in the village, especially after Labor Day, is simply a sign of the times. “I think retail business is bad all around,” she said, “I think it’s very concerning that these long-term retail businesses are closing.”

Customer service is what keeps people coming back to Herrick’s instead of heading west for a big-box hardware store. It’s seasoned employees, like Mark Halsey, who just celebrated 40 years at the store, who have played a huge role in making Herrick’s a reliable choice for over a century.

But with a business so reliant on its customer service, Hare has also found that Hamptons visitors are simply not as interested in the personal touch as they once were.

“The large estates don’t have caretakers anymore, they have management companies, and a lot of them are not based in Southampton,” he explained. “The personal relationship is gone.”

“These humongous houses have someone who buys for them — they have someone who’s managing it,” Herrick Hare added. “They’re not going into the local community to do that.”

Herrick Hare noted that the local population is dwindling from what it once was, and with such a high cost of living, she sees fewer and fewer young people planting roots out east.

“We do have loyal local customers, but I think a great deal of the traffic in the summer is just day-trippers,” she said of the village. “They’re not going to be going into a hardware store for anything.”

Still, Herrick Hardware continues to thrive, thanks to the support of the year-round community members who still believe in shopping local, even though the number of “local” storefronts is less than the number of designer chain stores.

It wasn’t unusual for chain stores to pop up for the summer season, even as early as the 1960s, according to the Hares, but they were anomalies, unlike today. “All the other shops were local,” Herrick Hare said. “Now, 90 percent of the shops are closing.”

An overwhelming number of vacant storefronts during the offseason is one of the reasons why residents are deterred from shopping in the village, despite that businesses like Herrick’s are still open year-round.

Just a few doors down from Herrick’s, Hildreth’s Department Store — established in 1842, making it the oldest surviving store of its kind in the United States — faces some of the same struggles.

“This past winter in particular, in January and February, there were a lot of vacancies,” said owner Henry Hildreth, just the latest generation to run the family business. “So, we’re playing catchup from the offseason. Southampton went into almost hibernation mode. It was a rough winter.”

There are many unexpected challenges that come with running a business that is so reliant on three months of the year to make money. “We’d rather have business spread out a little bit more than all at once,” he explained. “When it comes all at once, the demands put on you as a shopkeeper are tremendous. We’re working seven days a week like a maniac.”

Hildreth employs around 55 salespeople during the summer, which he said drops by 10 to 15 percent in the offseason.

Like Herrick’s, Hildreth said that he needed to find ways to stay competitive in the world of online retailing. “It is harder to compete with Amazon,” Hildreth said. “People come in, take pictures of things, and then shop online to see where they can find it.”

He has several new initiatives in the works, including drop-shipping and a homecare service in which Hildreth’s will take over various tasks for part-time homeowners. “We’ll accept deliveries. When there’s snow on the ground, we’ll put tracks in the driveway so it looks like you’re there,” he explained. “It’s something to complement Ring and these other home services that are around.”

Another reason Southampton Village businesses struggle, Hildreth said, is because of the lack of nightlife in comparison to other East End villages.

“Southampton has always been known as a sleepy kind of village that, come sunset, everybody rolls up their awnings and goes home, whereas Sag Harbor is just getting started for the day,” he explained. “We never really have businesses open late, and part of that is because we don’t have second-floor housing. We don’t have a community that resides in the village proper.”

A lack of second-floor housing is an issue Southampton Village has struggled to deal with for years. There’s been chatter of creating a sewer district in the village, which would allow an expansion of septic service that could permit people to live above storefronts, but the plan never solidified.

The hope is that second-floor apartments would bring people into the village at night, which gives business owners a larger window of opportunity to make sales.

Herbert and Rist Wine and Liquor Shop on Jobs Lane, which first opened in 1933, is one business that has already implemented later hours. Manager John Noonan said he would love to see an apartment over every store in the village. “It would be great to have people living in the village,” he said. “If the stores are closed, why would you walk the streets?”

It’s difficult for any town to have a nightlife when visitors have to drive home afterward, Noonan said, adding that it’s easier to have a nightlife in Sag Harbor because visitors often live on their boats during the summertime and can walk back to the waterfront after.

Despite the quiet evenings, Noonan, along with John Rist Jr. and Michelle Reilly, believe that being open from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. most days is what sets the shop apart in being an accessible business.

Though Herbert and Rist doesn’t face the same issues with online shopping as other retailers, the business falls victim to the assumption that shopping local is more expensive than purchasing from a big-box store. This couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Rist and Noonan, who said that many New York City customers will often call to have their items shipped, because they don’t face the typical Hamptons or Manhattan up-charge.

“I think it’s surprising to people that we’re over here on Jobs Lane giving good deals,” Rist said.

The difference between business today compared to how it was 30 years ago, Noonan said, is that the internet has allowed customers to easily compare prices and know if they are getting a bad deal.

“Customers are much more educated,” Noonan said. “Customers know their pricing. When they come in, and you haven’t even helped them yet, and they see that what they’re looking for is fairly priced, then they’ll look at more stuff and come back.”

While Herbert and Rist doesn’t open until 9 a.m., Mr. Rist is in every day as early as 6 a.m. Aside from a couple of part-time hires in the summer, Rist, Noonan and Reilly are the foundation of the 86-year-old business, and they believe their decades of combined experience is what keeps customers loyal.

“We’re open 73 hours a week, and there’s always one of us here, whether it’s John, myself or Michelle,” Noonan said. “You gotta be here. People don’t want to shop on your hours, they want to shop on their hours. Even if that means they can only get here at 9 in the morning, or 8 or 9 at night, you gotta be here.”

Over on Main Street, Corwin’s Jewelers, now on its fifth generation of owners since opening in 1879, is another Southampton Village business that survives on its reliable experience and customer service above all else.

“Business for us stays consistent, and generally increases every year,” said Travis Corwin, who has owned the business since 2016. “I think that’s largely because of our repair business and our service business. We don’t rely heavily on sales alone.”

When it comes to foot traffic in the village, Corwin has seen an increase in recent years. “When my dad had the business, we were never open on Sunday,” he said. “If we were open on Sunday, no one ever came, and it was completely dead. Now, we’re seeing a lot of people out shopping.”

Like other shop owners, Corwin also believes that there is potential for the village to become more of a nighttime hotspot, though he doesn’t see this happening until a sewage treatment plan is put into place to allow apartments and more restaurants.

“There’s no nightlife in the village, because when retail businesses close and go home, everything goes home. There isn’t any reason to stay in Southampton,” he said.

But the first step to drawing crowds into town late in the day, Mr. Corwin said, is to put on events that give people incentive to visit. He recalled an attempt by the Southampton Chamber of Commerce years ago to organize a weekend in March for businesses to stay open late, though bad winter weather ultimately deterred shoppers.

“This was a great idea, but why are you doing it the first week of March?” He said. “Why not do it over Memorial Day?”

The Southampton Chamber of Commerce has made attempts not only to bring people into the village at night, but also after Labor Day. SeptemberFest and the annual Parade of Lights and Christmas Tree Lighting are the biggest off-season events that help bring people into the village and remind them that businesses are still open year-round.

Mark Parash, owner of Sip’n Soda on Hampton Road, founded in 1958, and a newly elected Southampton Village trustee, agrees that the village needs to see more events during the offseason to attract the locals who tend to steer clear of the village during the hectic summertime.

“We’re at a stage now where we might be isolating ourselves too much,” he said. “We’ve created this whole secondary society that does their own thing until everybody else leaves, and then we’ll get our village back.”

Parash offers a different perspective on the future of Southampton Village. With an 18-person staff of high school students, he finds that the youth are often the most overlooked when it comes to searching for answers on how to make the village more lively.

“They constantly update me on certain things I never would think about,” he said, adding that over the years his staff has helped him to adapt his menu to include healthy options or trendy ingredients. “Incorporating a youth mindset is extremely important.”

Where many businesses in seasonal communities go wrong, Mr. Parash said, is in focusing so much on making money during the summer months that the year-round community is forgotten.

“Everybody can make money in the peak season,” he said. “But by tapping into the dead time and just getting people to walk in your door, you’re going to end up having a much better opportunity to create more business.”

To see change in the future of the village, Parash said, help needs to come from the community.

“We are moving forward, but we do need help,” he said. “We might have to tap a little bit more into the village at times in asking to do more year-round events that local people can come out to and see people they actually know.”

The year-round community, especially younger generations, Parash argued, are the biggest mouthpieces needed to voice the changes they believe are necessary to help the village thrive.

“All you hear about is Sag Harbor and other towns,” he said. “It’s time for Southampton to pop again and shine.”

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