A Love Sonnet — And A Lament — For A Special Bank

An Apple Bank savings account passbook belonging to the author.

Imagine a financial institution that genuinely cares about the well-being of its neighbors, its community and its small depositors. Actually, it doesn’t take too much imagination: That warm-hearted culture is alive and well at the Apple Bank branch on Main Street.

Unfortunately, it is about to lose a little bit of its luster. The bank is abandoning one of its most venerable traditions because of a decision that was made, not locally, but rather at corporate headquarters in Manhattan. Sag Harbor will be just a little bit poorer as a result.

For the past 20 years, I have been a most contented depositor. When my wife and I fled the city in 2001 as shell-shocked refugees from 9/11, we sought stability in a suddenly fragile world. One of the first things we did to achieve it? Open a savings account at Apple.

Improbably, it worked. Somehow, it gave us the sense that we were putting down roots.

The author, Doug Feiden. Michael Heller photo

I can still see Lucette, astonished and beaming, as a bank officer grandly presented her with an account passbook. Yes, an old-fashioned, deep-blue, paper-and-ink-based passbook to record our deposits and withdrawals, credit interest, and mark the passage of time….the good days and the not-so-good days, too.

Even then, it had a retro feel. Lucette hadn’t seen or held one in her hands since her girlhood introduction to savings at the old Independence Community Bank in Brooklyn.

But we cherished it, and like clockwork, at the end of every quarter, we would come in proudly brandishing the physical document to make our modest deposits, sometimes just rolls of pennies and nickels, and to update the account.

It is this humble passbook, this analog answer to the digital domain, which has been consigned to oblivion by Apple’s home office.

Longtime branch manager Tom Rickenbach gave me the heads-up two or three months ago. As always, even as a bearer of bad news, he was proper and professional, pleasant and personable. Still, I was crestfallen. Seniors would feel disenfranchised, I thought, Pierson students and alum who learned thrift via the Youth Savings Account (“just $1 to open and $5 to earn interest”) would be forlorn and disbelieving.

And old-timers would never stand for it. After all, some of them still refer to the bank by its original name, the Sag Harbor Savings Bank, an independent institution that was founded in 1860, moved into its Classical Revival temple at the corner of Main and Spring in 1910, and finally surrendered local control when it was purchased by Apple in 1989.

Reality sank in only when a “Dear Customer” letter arrived from Apple in late February with an ominous-sounding “PRODUCT UPDATE NOTICE.” As of April 1st, passbook savings accounts would be discontinued, automatically converted, whether one wanted to do so or not, into “statement savings accounts” that “eliminate the need to travel to a branch to update your passbook.”

Hello? Was my bank really telling me it no longer wanted me to come into my bank?

I thought about a couple of personalized, hand-written notes I had received from Tom over the years, one suggesting a way to boost interest returns, the other offering condolences when I lost Lucette in the summer of 2019.

Of course I was not alone. The village is filled with hundreds of others who have gotten similar letters.

But I wondered: If a community bank is now advising its community that it need not “travel” to its bank, how long will it be before Apple’s officers and tellers can no longer match the names of depositors with their faces? And when that happens, how much longer will it be before the personal letters themselves stop coming?

Take away the passbook and you take away the soul of the bank, and as unlikely as it may sound, this is a bank that always had a soul.

I looked forward to my quarterly visits, and I came to regard the semi-hush of the banking hall as a kind of POPS, a privately owned public space, where a million little and not-so-little dramas quietly played out.

Consider the developer and the preservationist who had bitterly clashed only the night before at a village committee meeting I’d covered for The Sag Harbor Express over the height and bulk of a new wing at a whaling-era saltbox on Garden Street. When their paths crossed the next morning, they began to talk, argue without heat, negotiate — and compromise — and when they saw that I was straining to listen in, they spoke almost in unison, “That’s off the record!” And they gave each other a big high-five.

Then there was the chance encounter I witnessed between two former lovers who apparently hadn’t seen each other in decades. Their embrace was so tender it brought tears to their eyes, and they both seemed filled with a well of regrets for whatever it was that had sundered their relationship.

Another day, there was a little girl sitting at a big desk, she couldn’t have been much older than six or seven, her parents were standing by her side, and she was beaming, really beaming, just as Lucette had beamed all those years ago, as she joyously held her new passbook aloft.

And then just a couple of months ago, I ran into Ellen Stahl, who happens to make the best madeleines on the East End, possibly the best outside of Paris. We chatted about our pandemic worlds and the depredations of the virus, and out of nowhere, I suddenly blurted out how much I had loved a batch of the shell-shaped pastries she had baked for the staff of The Express back in 2016.

She told me, a little dolefully I thought, that she had no one to make them for these days.

A few days passed, and then the next thing I knew her husband and emissary Bryan Boyhan, publisher emeritus of this newspaper, was reaching out to me with word that Ellen had created dozens of fresh madeleines with “your name on them.” They tasted as buttery, savory and transcendent as I had remembered them from five years ago.

If that sounds self-indulgent it’s probably because it is self-indulgent! But it’s also a definition of community — and an object lesson in just how easily community can be stripped away:

With no passbook, and the “elimination of the need to travel to a branch,” there would be no impromptu meeting with Ellen, and thus, no madeleines.

These were the thoughts, stories and memories coursing through my mind when I called Apple’s executive office in the city to complain. But how can you tell a bank about the developer and the preservationist? How do you describe the star-crossed lovers?

How do you explain to a bureaucracy the significance of the little girl? Or the miracle of the madeleines? At best, they would think I was eccentric, my points irrelevant, and at worst, that I was a crazy person.

So I tried to convey how much the passbook had meant to my absent wife and me, how it was a passport to life in the village, and could they possibly make an exception for customers who simply couldn’t imagine banking without it?

The answer, essentially, was no. Brusque and matter of fact, it boiled down to this, “There are no exceptions.”

To its credit, Apple called me back a couple of times because they wanted to better understand my complaint. The results, however, were no more satisfactory. It wasn’t only banking that had increasingly become “contactless,” one caller said, all of society itself was moving in that direction.

You think?

Statement savings accounts, another customer specialist told me, had become the “industry standard.” My response was that, had I wanted the industry standard, I’d bank at Citi or Chase. In fact, were their interest rates incrementally higher, I just might do so, though rates had never been determinative for Lucette and me in the past.

Yet even as I said it, I realized that in truth, I’d probably stick with Apple. Tom and his staff aren’t about to discourage depositors from walking through the door, and the place, or so I’d like to believe, will remain forever the welcoming bank on the corner.

But its charms will be diminished, my illusions will have vanished, and perhaps imperceptibly, the village will suffer.

It should come as no surprise. In-person banking and records you could hold in your hands, personal letters from bankers and old-school paper accounts? All of that has long been obsolete in most places.

But Sag Harbor isn’t most places. It wasn’t supposed to happen here.

Douglas Feiden is a former reporter for The Sag Harbor Express and former City Hall Bureau Chief for both The Daily News and The New York Post. He can be reached at doug.feiden@gmail.com