SIS Teacher Jayne Clare starts up an educational app on her iPad. SHAYE WEAVER
Decorative festive candles at Hildreth's Department Store. MICHELLE TRAURING
As he rearranged inventory that has been hanging on the walls since Columbus Day, Hans Boujaran, who owns an antique rug store in Southampton Village, said business on Main Street has been uncharacteristically sparse.
“In the past, I have done some of my best business over the winter months,” Mr. Boujaran said. But he said the scarcity this year is largely due to the empty storefonts that can be seen up and down village streets.
“This village could be a fine place for families to go walk around after Thanksgiving dinner and maybe even take part in Black Friday sales—but I don’t expect to see a soul,” he continued.
A recent count on Main Street showed seven storefronts closed for the season. In the heart of the Southampton Village business district, there are about 10 more closed on Jobs Lane—and neighboring shopkeepers are not confident that those shuttered stores will reopen in the spring.
Many businesses opt to close their doors after Columbus Day, during the shoulder months of the busy Hamptons summer season. But shop owners like Mr. Boujaran are worried that this winter will be especially barren—which will harm the businesses that do stay open year-round.
He warns that the village will turn into a “ghost town.”
“The problem is, a lot of the shops need someone to man the store, which can be expensive if there’s no one shopping,” Mr. Boujaran said. The rug seller works alone and expects to slightly limit his shop’s hours, but will make himself available by appointment. “I have to be there, because no one else can do what I do,” he added.
Mr. Bourajan, a Northampton resident who has had his antique rug business on Main Street for 22 years, said he remembers a time when the streets were full of locally owned shops that sold soaps, candles, Christmas ornaments and sweaters, among other goods.
But the past few years have been different. This year, by the time second-home owners left after Labor Day weekend, shops started to close up—much earlier than the norm. The slowdown to business that followed hurt neighboring shops that relied on foot traffic.
Even Silver’s restaurant had an identity crisis this fall. Garrett Wellins, who wants to retire from his family’s 95-year-old luncheonette on Main Street, contemplated selling the restaurant and building it’s housed in. It was on the market for about a month before his son Ryan stepped in to carry the torch.
“Evolution has just caught everyone by surprise,” Mr. Wellins said. When he was growing up in the village working at his grandparents’ shop, he recalled fewer storefronts but every single local shop was open for business; a few city-based brands would close by Columbus Day. Shops stayed open through the holidays even though it was slow.
“Once the shopping centers opened up out west, there was a slight dip in activity, but it was still decent. We made enough money to put food on the table,” Mr. Wellins continued.
“There was a niche, affluent cottage culture here,” Mr. Boujaran said. “Now, it has exploded into mansion-buying second-home owners who want the same popular commercial stores they get in the city.”
Mr. Wellins said he sees his neighbors struggle to keep up with the cost of doing business year over year—in part because of the demand for more rent as well as growing operating and insurance costs. “Now, rent is no longer an accidental expense,” he said. “It’s enormous, and there is not enough business in the lean end of the season where you can offset those expenses and stay afloat, unless you have a pretty substantial war chest from the summer.”
Mr. Boujaran said his rent has doubled since he started in 1995. “And my landlord is actually giving me a little bit of a break, because I have been on time and a solid business, to keep me there,” he said.
“But it has nothing to do with property taxes in the village,” Mr. Wellins said.
While tax rate has quintupled since 1975—when the village started to see significant growth of summer homes—Village Assessor William McCoy said many of the buildings are still owned by the same few families. He said what happens is that property owners must be pinched by other costs. So, they raise the rent and when a tenant can’t keep up, the store is left vacant.
Mr. McCoy said he has noticed a high turnover of tenants in the village as of late. When ownership of a property turns over, the new owners are paying higher prices and, in turn, charging tenants more.
“As we approach the New Year, if you walk around, it’s odd to find a store open on Jobs Lane,” Mr. McCoy said. “They really do close up for the season.”
In the place of many locally owned stores emerge pop-up shops. Morley Quatroche, a leasing agent for many of the shops in Southampton Village, said that he has leased more than 40 seasonal pop-up stores in the last decade. He said that has significantly hurt the business of full-time tenants who pay rent all year-round.
“Things go in cycles where you will have lots of vacancies and there will be years where there will only be a few,” he said. “The retail market has also just vastly changed nationwide.”
Mr. Quatroche said he has noticed that Jobs Lane is worst off in terms of vacancies. He noted that Main Street has more niche, destination stores that offer a particular goods or services, like Herrick Hardware, or are industries that are doing well in the market right now, like cosmetics at Bluemercury.
“I have a lot of tenants that have a recipe of opening Easter weekend every year and close the end of October, and they do quite well during those times,” Mr. Quatroche said. “But the businesses that have irregular hours are going to suffer.”
Mr. Quatroche said a noticeable hole was left when Rogers Memorial Library, and later the Parrish Art Museum, moved locations, draining the business district of two cultural institutions, which have a hand in attracting business. “I believe that area of Jobs Lane is still a dead zone,” he said.
Mr. Boujaran said he wants village government to take on the responsibility and incentive businesses to stay open longer and to attract residents to the business district.
Mayor Michael Irving’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The administration has said efforts are ongoing to strengthen the business district with a commercial wastewater system in the future—while preserving the historical character of the community. A business district plan also laid the groundwork for how the village could foster a walkable commercial center in the village.
Architect Siamak Samii, who was chairman of the Southampton Village Planning Commission in 2013 and authored the plan, said at a recent Planning Board meeting that it was an effort to “bring residential life back into the heart of the village.” He was supporting a plan, with modifications, to remove a courtyard on Jobs Lane to make way for a pair of two-story commercial buildings.
Donald Sullivan, the owner of Southampton Publick House, said he often wonders why the village can’t be more like Sag Harbor, where there are year-round residents living in apartments above shops and restaurants, which creates business opportunities. He pointed to Patchogue, which holds regular street fairs to generate business.
“When we opened 23 years ago, we had eight year-round restaurants in the village open seven days a week,” Mr. Sullivan said. “The village has changed quite a bit. You go from Hill Street, down Jobs, up Main Street and on to Hampton Road—I can guarantee you’ll pass 40 empty storefronts.
“If that doesn’t make people concerned, I don’t know what does. This village is effectively closed after 7 p.m.”
“Whatever was here—a romantic feeling about shopping locally—is now lost, especially in the winter when it’s cold and residents are more comfortable just ordering off of Amazon,” Mr. Boujaran said. “We are fighting against a trend. And will I soon be on my last leg? Maybe.”
One fine body…