Dee Clarke Moorhead once took time off from her Sag Harbor women’s clothing, jewelry and accessories store, D J Hart, during a Memorial Day Weekend because she’d broken her foot. Other than that, she hasn’t known a free Memorial Day Weekend since she launched the store in 1977.
This year, the 66-year-old Shelter Island resident will finally discover what she’s been missing. A Main Street fixture for 43 years, her bright and colorful shop is now in the midst of a closeout sale with everything at least 50 percent off and a $20 rack for special bargains.
D J Hart will be just a memory by the end of March like the many other locally owned landmarks with which it shared Main Street over the years: The Ideal, Marty’s Barbershop, Conca d’Oro, Reno’s dry cleaners, the Trude Shop, Hilde’s sweet shop, Ryerson’s and its notorious predecessor, the Black Buoy bar. Its owner, Jim Black, was her landlord when she launched her shop next door at age 24.
“When it rained, it smelled like beer,” she recalled in an interview on Saturday in the back room of her store.
In 1983, Mr. Black came into her shop to announce he was tripling the rent. “I go, ‘I’m not stupid,’” she said, and went looking for a building of her own. A 19th-century wood frame structure next to the post office that housed Provisions and Flashbacks downstairs and an apartment and former sail loft upstairs was on the market for $260,000. She told broker Tony Mangano she’d pay $200,000.
“He said, ‘Okay,’ so I wrote a rubber check for $3,000 and leaned against the wall and said to myself, ‘I’m screwed.’” She pulled it off, though, and today credits her Sag Harbor attorney for allowing her to make it to closing. “Dennis Downes made it all happen,” she said.
Now, “I want to go home and ride horses,” she said.
“I’m in perfect health and I have a wonderful life and I’m very happy,” explained Ms. Moorhead, who has been single for the past decade and is the mother of a grown son, Martin, who has a carpentry business based in Sag Harbor. “You know, I don’t want to be a retail statistic. I don’t want to be a lifer, actually. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it forever.”
All the women in her family live long; her mother just turned 94. “If I’m going to do that, I want to stay healthy,” said theexuberant, self-described Buddhist, gym rat, bicyclist, horsewoman, gardener and designer-artist who lives on a small horse farm on Shelter Island she bought in 1984 that features a barn and a spacious studio in a former chicken coop for her fabric and jewelry work. Some of it has been featured in her shop but, for most of her inventory, “I bought wholesale and sold retail,” she said; she also bought direct from manufacturers and artists all over the world.
“I could still be here” keeping the store running through its fifth decade “but the factors that would make it work are something at this point in my life I’m not willing to do,” she said.
To succeed, she added, a store needs a multi-faceted “internet presence, a warehouse full of inventory and brick and mortar … and I’m just not willing to warehouse $1 million-worth of product” or ramp up her online profile. “The world is moving at a very rapid rate so it’s hard to keep up with,” she said.
It also needs a reliable crew. Ms. Moorhead credits her employees for making the store’s success possible. “They worked so diligently for me and always had my back,” she said. “In 43 years, I’ve had two people quit.”
Born Dorothy Kosowski, Ms. Moorhead is a Queens native who grew up in Garden City, where she went to high school. She graduated with a degree in art and architecture from New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury. She has a brother who lives in Rhode Island. Her mother was one of the first licensed nurse practitioners in the state, she said, and her father, whom she calls a genius, was a mechanical and electrical engineer who worked for Western Electric.
“He taught me I could do whatever I wanted in life and he suggested everything I did,” Ms. Moorhead said.
What she did was leave a fast-moving, hectic life in the city in her early 20s and come to live in her parents’ cottage on Route 114 in North Haven. She had been working in retail since age14, starting with summer and part-time jobs at departments stores including A&S and Saks; but after college, she realized she didn’t want the city life she was leading; she wanted “a more civilized lifestyle,” she said.
At first, she couldn’t find a decent job here. She was working part-time at a Jobs Lane clothing shop in Southampton when a man came in, found her kneeling on the floor hemming jeans, and asked her what she really wanted to do with her life. She said she was a fabric artist, designing needlepoint and rugs. He came back later with an autographed book of Erica Wilson’s embroidery designs and a card with a phone number and the name J. W. Kaiser on it.
“Call him,” said the man, whose name she never learned. Eventually she did call the number and wound up running J. W. Kaiser and his family’s East Hampton household for four years, doing everything from cooking and housekeeping to handling social arrangements.
The job allowed her to save up $8,000. Together with a loanfrom her parents for $8,000, she set out to realize a dream that had been taking shape as she struggled to find an outlet for her creative instincts: to open a shop of her own in Sag Harbor, where the rents had yet to go ballistic and the array of businesses at the time left room for an eclectic women’s boutique.
At first, “I just kept working, doing catering or any other job: I just did it” to keep the store afloat, she said. In time, it clicked.
That’s all history now. When the store closes for good, “I’m staying on Shelter Island,” she said, “and I plan to do what I’ve never done: take a year off to decide what’s next. I need to breathe.”
For as long as the inventory lasts, the store is open this monthfive days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
What about the name, D J Hart? Where did that come from?