By Emily J Weitz
Sylvester and Co. touts itself as a contemporary general store, and when you really think about it, it is. You can get everything from a bar of soap to a cup of coffee, from bath towels to cookies to shoes. The only difference between Sylvester and Co. and the wood-paneled general store of yester-year is that at Sylvester’s, the towels are the fluffiest, the shoes the most innovative, and the cup of coffee is, well, Dreamy.
“When we opened in 1989,” says Linda Sylvester, “I saw Sag Harbor as a dusty frontier town.”
She originally thought of a department store, with all sorts of items available. But a department store is typically multiple levels.
“The women’s clothing is on one floor, the housewares on another,” says Sylvester. “This gives your mind a chance to change gears. But a general store is a big rectangle. It’s a lateral department store.”
One element of the general store that Sylvester found particularly appealing was the fact that they are, historically, destinations.
“They’re gathering places,” she says.
To that end, Sylvester put in the Dream Bar, where people can serve themselves their own cup of coffee and sit on one of the stools overlooking Main Street. For the overworked weekender just arriving from the city, all the essentials are right here.
“We have a hardworking clientele with a short window of recovery, given their travel time,” says Sylvester. “They have about 18 hours to get back in the saddle. Since their time is limited, it makes sense to offer all the supplies they’ll need for the weekend: a pound of coffee, a bar of soap, a towel for the beach, and a house gift. We offer creative takes on the basics.”
That creativity and uniqueness is integral to the continuing success of Sylvester and Co.
“Because of people’s ability to shop online, a merchant on Main Street needs to become more special,” says Sylvester. “More artisanal, more locally made, more uncommon. Common is readily available, so the goal is to not do common.”
This means that Sylvester and Co has changed with the times. Back in the 80s, this was the first place out here to offer Eli Zabar’s bread and a lot more from the kitchen. But as those items became more easily accessible from other places, Sylvester had to keep refining what made her store special.
“The thing about shopping when I grew up was it was an adventure. You discovered things,” she says. “I like to provide that for people. It’s supposed to be fun. I think the success of this next generation is they’re more interested in special, handmade, mid-century. You don’t want to go to your friend’s house and see the same Restoration Hardware piece that you have… You’re building an environment that you live in. It’s supposed to be full of your life experiences.”
What percentage of her business does the popular Dreamy coffee actually comprise?
“About 10 percent,” she says. “Originally I thought of it as a waiting station for husbands. I give the husbands and kids something to do so the moms can shop.”
But she admits it has developed a cult following.
“We’ve been making Dreamy coffee for 20 years,” she says. “We roast it with a little chocolate in it, which gives it that special quality. The process takes twelve hours.”
The name came from her own preoccupation with dreaming.
“Without dreams, you don’t have a thing,” she says. “I think that having a cup of coffee at three in the afternoon is like giving you permission to have a day dream.”
As she looks out on a bustling Main Street, Sylvester slips into her own afternoon reverie, discussing her role in the town.
“We’ve been beating the drum for a long time,” she says. “The return to Main Street is the only thing that can save any small town in America. You see how depressing East Hampton is. It loses its vitality in the winter… It’s a huge emotional void. I don’t ever want that to happen to Sag Harbor. Part of the reason Sag Harbor is so popular is because it still has a heartbeat.”