Harbor Books Not Ready To Say Goodbye Yet

Taylor Rose Berry outside Harbor Books in late November. Abby Houston photo

Taylor Rose Berry could choose to feel dejected, or she could choose to be angry, but instead, she said she’s choosing to be hopeful and is trying to get creative.

The proprietor of Harbor Books announced this weekend her lease will end at the end of February, meaning she has to find a new location. Once she made the news public, the community responded with an outpouring of kindness — and suggestions.

“In light of the love and support, how could I not be hopeful?” Ms. Berry said in an interview.

She has discussed ideas with members of Sag Harbor’s “hive mind” including looking at finding space in a nonprofit to renting a former restaurant space and evolving into a lounge and bookstore. She’s looking into the former Addo space across the street — a retail space that has been dormant for months now. The ideas just keep coming, Ms. Berry said.

“I essentially believe this bookstore needs to stay in Sag Harbor. I’m committed to making that happen,” she said. “I’m so appreciative of everyone’s love and support and ideas. I’m definitely overwhelmed. There were a few times this weekend I had to step off the floor for a few minutes. I do feel good to have announced it. Having other people involved feels good.”

Ms. Berry plans to maintain the Dobra Tea shop, which she said she owns per a license agreement from the co-op Dobra, which usually runs its own tea rooms. The retail prices of books are fixed, she said, so the tea and other merchandise like cards and gifts help supplement profits on books.

“I can figure that out,” she said. “The tea has become so much a part of the store in a way I didn’t realize it would. I would hate to lose it.”

Ms. Berry cited an unsustainable rent increase in a potential new lease as the reason she will vacate her current space at the end of February.

“The rents are very, very high in this part of the woods. I respect commerce and capitalism from the landlord’s perspective,” she said. “If they can get these rates, they have the right to. At some point, the question becomes, ‘What do we want our community to be?’ I think we all know what we want it to be. It’s rooted in history and art and literature. The reality is that with rents what they are, these places can’t survive. Not mom-and-pops, not small businesses, if the rents keep rising.”

Ms. Berry said after her social media announcement this weekend, Hal Zwick, the real estate agent representing property owner Ted Seiter, offered a temporary rent freeze for a few years as part of a new lease. Mr. Seiter and Mr. Zwick confirmed this.

It was “only after my announcement and only after the date where — as per our current lease — I had to give notice,” Ms. Berry said. “Surely, I will be following that up with Ted and Hal as I have stated my desire to be in our location, but it is a very recent development.”

Mr. Seiter called Ms. Berry “an excellent tenant.”

“She ran that place beautifully,” he said. “It’s a very difficult business to be in.”

He declined to disclose what Ms. Berry’s rent was for the 2,200-square-foot space, but described it as “less than market value.” The building he owns is also home to the Laundromat and four apartments.

Harbor Books is the latest in a succession of Sag Harbor stores to either change hands or otherwise be affected by shifts in the real estate market. La Superica, Lee Jewelers, Country Lane and Adornments are among the local, independently-owned businesses that have closed in the last year. Conca d’Oro sold its lease to new owners in 2017, Murf’s Tavern has also been sold and Bay Burger closed its doors in October when its owners decided to pursue other ventures and put the Sag Harbor-Bridgehampton Turnpike business and property on the market for $3.5 million.

“Sag Harbor has a soul in a way that I don’t know that some of the other East End villages [have] anymore, except for maybe Montauk,” Ms. Berry said. “Each time another store closes, I think it chips a little bit away at the soul of Sag Harbor.”

Lisa Field, president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store, shared a similar sentiment.

“We were saying that this is the reason we need the Chamber of Commerce. We need to keep a voice, keep saying, ‘We’re here, we’re still viable,’” she said. “It’s very upsetting because it’s really one too many businesses. One or two is bad, but five or six small, locally owned businesses? … I hate to see it changing the character of Main Street. It just seems like all of a sudden did we reach a tipping point and now everything’s sliding off it somehow?”

Ms. Field said the situation creates the opportunity to explore solutions like shared business spaces.

“I don’t know if that’s doable but it’s something we have to look at,” she said. “Does it make sense for a bookstore to partner with another store that might also be struggling? It’s definitely a topic of conversation that the businesses are talking about.”

Sag Harbor was once home to several bookstores, including Metaphysical Books and Tools, which closed in 2010; Black Cat Books, which moved to Shelter Island and maintains a strong online presence; and BookHampton, which had locations in Sag Harbor and Southampton in addition to East Hampton, but now remains only in East Hampton with a new owner; its Southampton location also has a new owner under the banner of Southampton Books. Just Canio’s Books, founded in 1980, stands now alongside Harbor Books, as purveyors of literature in Sag Harbor. With its many readings and workshops, it’s fair to say it can be considered a literary hub on the South Fork.

Maryann Calendrille, co-owner of Canio’s, said in an email that each bookstore “has its own personality and interests, specialties … the more variety, diversity, the better.”

“What would Sag Harbor, the beloved village of a Nobel laureate, John Steinbeck, look like without book shops? Terrible! Unforgivable!” Ms. Calendrille said. “The East End was home to so many internationally famous authors; our local book shops help maintain and celebrate that literary tradition. … Like with all communities, they are strengthened by a multiplicity of voices. We don’t want to live in a monoculture; it’s not sustainable. Think of an orchestra: many instruments harmonize to create a rich musical expression.”

For Ms. Berry, who was inspired to open Harbor Books after falling in love with a store called Crow Books in Burlington, Vermont, where she attended college, the next chapter of Harbor Books simply has yet to be written.

“I always imagined I’d own a bookstore. I thought I’d be a 70-year-old woman with long, grey hair and cats,” she said. “I ended up doing it at 26 with red hair and cats. I don’t have a plan B. This is it.”