Mary Waserstein became the new director of the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce in October, after three years of the organization being dormant. She has brought an upbeat vision of the realities of the downtown business district and new focus on drawing crowds while also seeking to expand the chamber beyond its traditional retail and restaurant focus. MICHAEL WRIGHT
For Mary Waserstein, the new director of the reborn East Hampton Chamber of Commerce, the East Hampton Village downtown business district is still a charming and tight-knit business community, largely run by middle-class locals, even if it is not the stitching in the fabric of the East Hampton community that it once was.
Behind the signs for the same big labels splashed on full-page ads in Vogue and Vanity Fair, are local parents, working at often well-paid, full-time, year-round careers, sculpting some of the most intricate and artistic retail displays anywhere in the world.
The downtowns of the Hamptons have been mourned by many in the 21st century for having lost their local importance as mom-and-pop businesses sold out or were ushered away in favor of high-end boutiques, designer brands and real estate offices that can foot the soaring rents new building owners must demand to justify their property value claims.
Cavernously empty storefronts, some lurking for years, or businesses that close up shop for the winter and move their wares and staff to Manhattan or Miami locations, have been decried as cancerous infections that are sapping the business districts of their vitality.
But East Hampton’s vacancies are not as glaring or as permanent as in Southampton, Waserstein says, and with a local group trying to find avenues to fill some of those that are shuttered just in winter, she has embarked on a crusade to find new sparks for the village’s tenants and a uniting purpose for the re-constituted chamber.
“How chambers of commerce are run has changed drastically in the last couple decades,” she said on a recent afternoon, while flitting from store to store in the downtown to drum up participation in “Spread the Love,” a coordinated pre-Valentine’s Day celebration in the downtown. “They used to be these Mason-esque small fraternities. They were a place for shop owners to network and discuss business. Now they are structured more like a business themselves.”
Waserstein will be on the panel of the Express News Group’s latest Express Sessions event at noon on February 1 at Rowdy Hall, which will discuss the various ways the business community, local government and groups like the Anchor Society might be able to inject some hustle and bustle back into the local downtowns in the offseason.
The East Hampton Chamber of Commerce had essentially folded up shop when the pandemic struck, its last director, Steve Ringell having moved away the summer prior and a replacement not yet named when the pall of lockdowns and social distancing descended.
This past fall, Barbara Layton, the former owner of Babette’s cafe, picked up the flag, mustered 35 dues-paying members, brought in Waserstein and is set to announce a new board of directors for the chamber soon.
To bolster its gravitas, and maybe its bottom line, Waserstein and Layton want to expand the reach of the chamber beyond just the village to Amagansett, Springs and Wainscott’s businesses, and fold in businesses outside of the traditional retail and restaurants — landscapers, construction and service companies, and Latino-owned businesses in general — under a common united interest in all things that impact commercial enterprise. In that vein, they have rebranded it the Greater East Hampton Chamber of Commerce. That will mean making the chamber relevant to a broader cross section too, of course.
“That is a big focus for me, turning the Chamber into something that advocates for all business,” Waserstein said. “Even if you are in different industries, you still have this commonality of experience that you are looking for. You want to understand what’s going on with local government that is going to impact you, be signs on the sidewalk or whether you can use a gas leaf blower. We want to be the source for that.”
She said the series of weekend fairs that her predecessor had organized in Herrick Park are not on the new chamber’s agenda — since they were almost universally panned by the business owners, even though they were successful at drawing people into the downtown, because they did not produce bumps in traffic to the brick-and-mortar shops.
She is laying the groundwork for reaching to other hamlets. A traditional farmer’s market is on tap for Thursday afternoons in Amagansett Square next summer. She’s hunting for an event idea in Springs to tap what she says is an amazing “food scene” evolving there.
Layton says that in the wake of the pandemic, business owners were thirsty for the connections between compatriots again after years of going it alone, and she and Waserstein are going to make one of the group’s new focuses pulling together events that will foster them in ways local chambers have not before.
“People were yearning for connection and collaboration,” she says. “Our emphasis is going to be on community in the business district — mixers, business seminars and conferences and business referrals. We want meaningful events, well thought-out events that benefit everyone — the local community and the high end brands.”
After a holiday season that had some of her business contacts reporting record returns, and a Santa Parade that brought more than 3,000 people to the village, Waserstein says she’s laboring to organize a follow-up that can hold a candle. The first new event will be the February 10 “Spread the Love” promotion that will see village wide in-store discounts, valentine-related specials — like pink lovey-dovey sweatshirts at Gubbins — and in-store food and drink catering that Waserstein and store staff hope will bring people to the streets for a stroll to see who has what to offer.
In today’s East Hampton, sometimes, what stores have to offer is simply their talents for showing off their wares in creative ways. Retail is no longer an industry reliant on folks needing to shop for goods they can’t easily get elsewhere, and for many of the big brands their East Hampton outposts are billboards more than they are cash registers — the elaborate holiday windows of big city department stores, in year-round form.
And like the celebrated Hamptons Designer Showhouse that taps the savvy of some of the nation’s most respected interior designers, the scene in the East Hampton Village downtown is something of a showcase of the highest level of retail design. Stores are lined with high-priced apparel and accessories, interiors meticulously designed and outfitted with custom rugs and furniture, $100 scented candles burning and in one case, a breakfast cart piled high with complimentary nosh on a quiet January weekday.
And that’s fine, Waserstein says. The big money brands are a product of the out of control rent increases driven by wealthy investor-landlords, and there is essentially nothing that can be done to reverse that. But they are also employers and often good-paying ones who are willing in some cases — like the four village stores owned by the international luxury retail brand LVMH — to absorb bottom line losses to keep stores open and staffed every day, or most days, all winter long.
Large national corporate stores are not solely the domain of wealthy visitors either, she said. Stores like Warby Parker and Lululemon are stuffed with locals, she said. Others, like Ralph Lauren’s three stores, the LVMH brands and renowned designers Derek Lam, Nilli Lotan, Roberta Roller Rabbit and Aviator Nation employ locals in full-time jobs, with benefits and career-level salaries — many of them the parents of her children’s classmates.
“I’ve really been struck by how beautiful the stores are and how much effort is put into them by the sales people — who are real, local, people,” she said. “They are my kids’ friends’ moms, and these are career jobs. They have 401(k)s and health insurance and good salaries and real benefits.”
Waserstein is a mother of four who grew up spending summers in East Hampton — she worked eight summers at Espo’s Surf & Sport — owns an online tableware brand, ran a small record label at one point and is now, slowly, getting her master’s in English literature from Harvard online.
In her new role, like anyone who has ever participated in a conversation about how to get more people into a downtown business district, she acknowledges: food is key. More restaurants, more coffee houses, more sandwich shops and snack joints, more markets peddling unique prepared foods will draw people in, or to various corners.
On a recent Friday midday, the Amber Waves pop-up market behind Main Street near Starbucks was the liveliest checkout line in the village — save for its ever eye-roll busy neighbor, and the venerable Golden Pear across Newtown Lane.
There has been a burst of activity in that realm from in the last year, and even in just the last couple months — and Waserstein says the impact has been palpable. The renowned San Ambroes opened its first East Hampton outpost, as did Tutto Il Giorno and then Kumiso, a tiny alleyway eatery modeled after Tokyo’s izakayas and operated by the owners of Sen and K-Pasa in Sag Harbor. Hampton Chutney Co. and Zakura’s Takeaway moved into the northern end of Newtown Lane next door to the venerable Villa Italian Specialties just before The Sweet Spot ice cream shop opened across the street — sparking a burst of vibrancy at that end of the downtown.
But to expand the number of “wet uses” as food business are known in legal terms, she champions the village’s effort to build a sewer system for the downtown. She says the town is going to have to cooperate with the village, which has determined the only viable location of the treatment system is at the village-owned highway yard, which is in the town. She hopes the chamber’s expansion to town businesses will help with the advocacy for that.
In the short term, Wasestein has other points to lobby for. She wants shop owners to be able to put small, tasteful signs that advertise sales or special — sandwich boards as they are known — on the sidewalks outside their doors to catch the eyes of passersby. She hopes to find a new format for the movie theater, which has lost a lot of its drawing power. Other regions have found new formats for movie theaters that have rekindled their appeal — like introducing hot food and alcohol sales and redesigning theater seating arrangements to a more casual model.
“Anyone who is willing to be here seven days a week … we have to allow them to try to make things work better for their business — you gotta let them try to make it work,” she said. “At this moment in time, we have to work with what we have, a lot of which is very good, then we can work on figuring out how to make the village more accessible and appealing.”
The East Hampton Chamber of Commerce and the Anchor Society will be among the groups participating in the next Express Sessions panel discussion at noon on February 1 at Rowdy Hall in Amagansett, which will focus on how the business community might stir a little more life into the downtown in the wintertime.
One fine body…