“We are a nation of communities… a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” – George H. W. Bush
Driving down the long winding driveway, I was suddenly transported back to childhood. Growing up in North Haven there weren’t many kids to play with. The Katz’s lived somewhat indirectly across the street from us, and I remember vividly the playground equipment in their front yard-it was every kid’s dream to play there.
It’s probably been 50 years since I’ve been to their house, but the memory of it has lived inside of me somewhere and flashed back in an instant. Mrs. Gertrude Katz welcomed me in with her warm smile and I was taken back to a time when life felt new and simple. I can see her laughing with my mom on Main Street, and I can see her greeting people and enlivening conversations with her wonderful sense of humor.
“I have lived my life in Sag Harbor; this is where I want to be. Leaving is never an option for me. This is my home. At my age, I want to spend anytime I have left in my home and my hometown,” said Mrs. Katz.
Mrs. Katz began to reminisce about the Sag Harbor of her childhood. “My mother and father opened the Fil-Net Shoppe (a woman’s clothing store) in Sag Harbor in 1930, where the Brown, Harris Stevens Real Estate building had stood. We lived over the store. I remember a lot of things on Main Street because it was like my yard. I remember your grandfather walking down Main Street during the Depression with a bucket in each hand selling fish. I remember the ‘Candy Kitchen’ was where the Paradise used to be, and there was Reimans Drugstore and soda fountain where the pharmacy is now. During the Depression, there were monkey grinders on Main Street, and people would put money in the cup. That money helped those people eat. Gypsies would come and set up camp in one of the shops on Main Street. Sag Harbor was a poor factory town. Buses brought young women into town to work in Bulova. Bulova Watchcase Factory helped sustain the town.”
Mrs. Katz attended Pierson High School from kindergarten through 12th grade. “Back then the teacher was always right. It would never enter your mind to show up without your homework. There were many great teachers. I took private clarinet lessons from Pop Mazzeo for a dollar and hour. On Friday nights, there would be a basketball game in the school gym. After the game, we’d put on some records and have a dance, but there was no ‘dipping’ allowed because there was a war going on. After the dance, we’d go to the Paradise for some food. Because it was a Friday, the Catholics couldn’t bite into their ham sandwiches until the clock struck midnight.” Mrs. Katz recalls that one of her favorite memories growing up was being the drum major and leading the parade for V.J. Day (Victory Over Japan). “People were celebrating and screaming in the streets; it was so exciting. It was a wonderful day.” Mrs. Katz graduated from Pierson in 1947 and went on to study business and retail at New York University.
Mrs. Katz remembers growing up during World War II. “I was so fortunate that my grandfather had come to this country when he did. In Sag Harbor, we were all brought up to respect each other’s ethnicity, color and religion,” she said. “We didn’t think so much about ourselves back then. There’s a lot of ‘selfie’ business going on now; people into themselves. Back then there was a war going on and that seemed to take over.”
Mrs. Katz has been very active in the Temple Adas Israel all of her life. “Growing up I went to the synagogue every week with my mom,” she said. “It was a part of life, just like going to school. At one time, we couldn’t get ten people to attend, which we needed for certain prayers, and now we often don’t have enough seats.”
Mrs. Katz’s father died when she was 10 years old, and she and her mother, Netti Rosenstein, continued to run the Fil-Net Shoppe. “We made our living there. People seemed to like my mother. She was a good listener.”
Many people would stop by the shop to speak with Mrs. Rosenstein.
“My mother used to say, ‘when someone comes into your shop you never know what’s in their hearts, so you have to be patient,” said Mrs. Katz.
When Mrs. Katz told her mother that she planned to marry Don Katz, her mother said, ‘getting married isn’t like violin lessons; you just can’t quit when you’ve had enough.” Don Katz came to have his own successful accounting firm in Sag Harbor, eventually called Banducci, Katz and Ferraris. “I feel very blessed,” said Mrs. Katz, “I was an only child and now I have four children, nine grandchildren and one great grandson.”
Mrs. Katz went on to take over the Fil-Net Shoppe and renamed it the Trudde Shoppe. Both stores filled the women’s clothing needs of Sag Harbor from 1930 until 1985. “My mother used to close the store for the Jewish holidays. Everybody respected each other’s religion,” she said.
“Growing up in Sag Harbor was like growing up in the last Andy Hardyville; it was the perfect town. It was like being raised on a commune-everyone looked out for one another,” said Mrs. Katz. “If your kids were doing something wrong, somebody in town would let you know about it. Any place you go, you say hello, and you’re amongst friends. You know you not alone when you’re in Sag Harbor.”
Back then no one had ever heard of Sag Harbor. When people used to ask me where I was from, I would tell them I came from a small town on Long Island, and they would say they’d been to Forest Hills or something like that. But now everyone has heard of Sag Harbor.
Mrs. Katz wondered if anyone still wanted to read about the past. And I realized, during this time when so much change seems to be happening in our village, that change has been a constant part of the evolution of this once sleepy town. No more Sag Harbor Candy Kitchen or Reimans or Fil-Net Shoppe. No more monkey grinders or factories or gypsies, as far as I know. Yet, hopefully we can move forward with the same mutual respect for our differences and continue to build friendships rather than grow hedges.
I asked Gert, as I call her, why is it that she has always seems so positive and upbeat, and she replied, “I’ve been a very lucky woman, so fortunate to be raised in this beautiful town with a wonderful husband, family and great friendships. What else is there?”
And so Sag Harbor is grateful for wonderful, loving people like Gert Katz who cherish it and feel blessed to call it HOME!