Try to take the temperature of the retail industry on Sag Harbor’s Main Street, and the local merchants by whose thermometers it can be measured will offer a range of results. But when it comes to a cure for many of retail’s ailments, perhaps Michael D’Angelo — who is not a doctor, but rather the co-owner of the Emporium True Value Hardware store — has the right prescription.
Shop local to keep Main Street’s businesses alive, he says, from the mom-and-pop shops to the restaurants to the grocery store and everyone in between. The same goes for main streets in Southampton, Bridgehampton and other local villages and hamlets, he says.
“I only go to the internet when I know I can’t get something between Southampton and Montauk,” said Mr. D’Angelo, who owns the Main Street hardware store along with his brother, Peter D’Angelo. “Everything’s so close.”
While he offered that solution for what he and many of his fellow business owners described as a key issue — competition from the internet — Michael D’Angelo said his own view of the future of retail on Main Street is that “it’s concerning, for sure.” Property values, competition, customer traffic, the economy in general – there are so many moving parts to running a business.
“You wonder if 20 years from now anyone’s going to want to own a brick-and-mortar store,” he said.
Gwen Waddington, who co-owns The Wharf Shop with her mother, Nada Barry, said she has an overall hopeful feeling about the future of Main Street but that “it’s a big question mark” to some degree given factors such as what types of businesses move into vacant buildings and whether other properties sell.
And having just had one of his best summers in the last 14 years, Randy Kolhoff, owner of Black Swan Antiques, said it’s going to take some innovation on the part of the local retailers to stay relevant.
“For people who are going to go on in retail and be successful, it’s not just waiting for people to come in through your door,” he said. “It’s about networking, providing service to your clients and being online.”
According to Lynda Sylvester, an artist and former interior designer who owns Modern General and Sylvester & Co., “a lot of the press and national anxiety about retail simply doesn’t apply to us.”
“The press has gathered from big box stores that have suffered … the fact that people’s buying habits have changed,” said Ms. Sylvester, for whom 2019 will mark her 30th year in the retail business. “To me, retail has never been in a better position than to come back in a really dynamic way.”
The stores that are doing well, she says, are those that are going back to a previous way of life — “a return to authentic,” she said.
“They’re going back to making things, back to specialty. It’s kind of a cliché now when people talk about Brooklyn — the candle makers, the chocolate makers, the bakers,” Ms. Sylvester said, saying Sag Harbor has plenty of specialty and authenticity yet. “Because the people we have shopping here are lovely, smart and have disposable income, we are lucky. I think the Hamptons are in a good position to remain a strong retail community if they can manage the rent issues.”
“Rent” is quite the four-letter word around Sag Harbor these days.
Lisa Field, president of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store, said reasonable rents and the proliferation of owner-occupied businesses — like hers, and like the D’Angelos’ hardware store — are key to the future of Main Street.
“Our Main Street is still more owner-occupied than everyone around here,” she said, having recently counted at least 15 businesses owned by people who also own the building where they are located. “That’s a big, strong number. But we’re worried about what the future is going to be — the changes, and the aging of the people who are the owner-occupiers.”
When Harbor Books underwent its metamorphosis earlier this year, owner Taylor Rose Berry at the time cited issues surrounding rent increases, despite the landlord’s offer of a temporary rent freeze, as the reason she couldn’t continue doing business as she had been. The bookstore was not the first store to bump up against rent problems, and likely won’t be the last.
Mr. Kolhoff, one of Ms. Berry’s nearby neighbors, said the loss of the traditional bookstore “was really hard to take” and said it reinforced, for him, how grateful he is to his current landlord for keeping the rent sustainable. He said it’s not too hard to envision a Sag Harbor bought up and rented right out from underneath everyone.
“It’s not hard to imagine that large parts of the village are going to become like East Hampton and parts of Southampton,” Mr. Kolhoff said, echoing Mr. D’Angelo’s “shop local” mandate. “People have to go into their community stores and support them. For locals, can you afford not to support local businesses? In the end, don’t you just end up with a sheltered downtown like some of the other villages? We really do have an eclectic mix of great vendors and store owners here. I’d hate to see this place just filled with vanity stores and hobby projects for people who don’t need to turn a profit.”
But Mr. Kolhoff himself took an interesting turn with his space in December, opting to share it with art gallery owner Laura Grenning. Ms. Grenning, who once occupied a gallery in the Sag Harbor Cinema and most recently was located in the building she has owned on Washington Street since 2007, said the move made sense because they shared many common clients as well as similarities in design and product aesthetics. It all started when Mr. Kolhoff expressed interest in a sculpture of a boar from Ms. Grenning’s gallery for his front window.
“There are a lot of people looking for spaces in this town,” she said. “We got to thinking. We decided it would be a win-win situation. I probably wouldn’t have done this if there wasn’t such a high demand and if I couldn’t rent my space out.”
Some in the business community, including Ms. Field, called the Black Swan-Grenning Gallery collaboration “innovative.” Ms. Grenning agreed but said it was also a very “community-aware” move.
“We know each other well enough that we trust it’s going to work,” she said. “It is trust, it is community, and if we’re going to have a recession or a tough time in retail, it’s a way to share overhead.”
When longtime retail staple Country Lane closed late in 2018 after 20 years in business, and a neighbor, Adornments, shut its doors as well, many in Sag Harbor wondered what would become of the rest of the tenants at the corner of Main and Washington streets in the buildings that had been purchased by real estate mogul Donald Zucker — under the names of a couple of limited liability corporations — for more than $9 million. Mr. Zucker declined to comment.
That there may be a few vacant storefronts does not necessarily translate directly to a lingering downturn in a local economy. Other factors point to strength in commerce in Sag Harbor. Within the borders of the Sag Harbor School District, for instance, the value of Southampton Town’s tax assessment rises nearly every year (East Hampton Town has not re-assessed its tax rolls in some time). The Sag Harbor Building Department sees applications for things like building permits and zoning variances at a dizzying pace. And leases may have already been signed behind-the-scenes for those spaces that still appear vacant.
“I think the retail trade sector is in a position of modest expansion because the real economy is strong,” said Dr. John Rizzo, chief economist for the Long Island Association, a regional think tank. “Retail is diversified on Long Island with many small businesses. Diversity acts as a kind of protection against downturns, and boutiques are less susceptible to internet buying than retail that sells, say, basic clothing. But internet sales remain a challenge.”
Indeed, every shopkeeper interviewed said competition from internet sellers is a significant hurdle to doing business. But a proposal by New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo may ease that pain a bit. On February 8, as part of his budget plan for the 2020 fiscal year, Governor Cuomo unveiled a plan to mandate online sellers collect and pay sales tax on every transaction, a move he said he expects will also boost sales tax revenue by $33 million in Suffolk County. That would amount to a 2.26-percent increase over the $1.46 billion that the New York State comptroller’s office said Suffolk took in last year in sales tax — in other words, a win-win.
“New York’s brick-and-mortar retailers are currently at a disadvantage because many online retail competitors are not collecting sales tax,” Governor Cuomo said in a statement.
Some Sag Harbor business owners even say they feel like they compete more with the internet than with each other.
“We never feel the other businesses, even the others who sell toys, are our competitors,” said Ms. Waddington, whose shop celebrated its 50th year in business last year. “We feel we are working together to keep Main Street vital. If we don’t have a product I always recommend people go to the Variety Store or the Kite Shop if they might sell what the customer is looking for.”
Ms. Grenning, though, has a different story to tell. She built her first website in 2001 and said lately she’s doing as much as 40 percent of her business through her website and through virtual galleries hosted by sites such as Artsy.net. This year, she said, she’s going to be starting a blog and investing more in internet advertising. But she did agree with Ms. Waddington and Ms. Field in that she doesn’t feel a strong sense of competition among other businesses in her corner of retail on Main Street.
“I think the taste of the clients is for more interesting, sophisticated and original things,” she said. “More galleries equal a lot more clients. I don’t think I compete with the other galleries in that I have such specific tastes. I think the more art galleries, the better.”
Ms. Grenning said she thinks the way Sag Harbor’s Main Street is developing will include “a lot of new types of businesses that form a more gentrified community.”
“I don’t throw a stone at that at all because I’ve been lucky enough to raise my daughter here in Sag Harbor, and if people weren’t buying $8,000 paintings on their way to buying a loaf of bread I probably couldn’t have stayed in this town,” she said. “I am part of the gentrification. I got here 21 years ago. I’ve seen a lot.”
Ms. Field recently attended the New York City Travel Show for the first time, representing the Chamber of Commerce, and handed out thousands of brochures to attract visitors to Sag Harbor, as visitor traffic is a huge part of Main Street’s viability. It’s the same reason why the chamber does events like HarborFrost and HarborFest — and Ms. Field echoed Mr. D’Angelo’s point: shopping local is the key.
“Sag Harbor is a destination,” she said. “If [people] are walking past vacant storefronts, that’s not charming. Visitors here want to see different unique shops, and the locals here need to have the different shops that they can shop at. It’s a great balance for Sag Harbor and we want to keep it that way.”
A handful of proprietors or managers of clothing stores declined to answer questions for this article.
But one who swiftly responded to a query was a newcomer: Alex Faherty, who owns the Faherty clothing store chain along with his brother, Mike Faherty. Their Sag Harbor store — which opened last May to join the ranks of their stores in Nantucket, Boston, California and New York City — has remained open year-round while other clothing stores have said “see you next spring.” Alex Faherty called their first season on Main Street “a great success.”
“We really loved getting to know the Sag customers and they have welcomed us into the community. It could not have been a better fit,” he said in an email.
Asked his impression of Main Street’s retail scene, Mr. Faherty said, “It feels like it could be staying still, but in a good way. Most spaces are full … and the small community of year-round shops feels stable and invested in the local community.”
He later added, “I think if other brands understand the market and actively keep trying to reach the consumer, then there is room for success for everyone.”
Mr. D’Angelo says he still feels positive about Main Street’s future. “Hey, this is my town,” he said. “There’s still a sense that you know everybody. People take care of each other.”
Ms. Sylvester said she feels frustrated when retail experts’ doom-and-gloom news about big box stores overshadow the successes of small, innovative companies. The online publication Retail Dive reported in January that “in 2019, the mall remains under siege,” with store vacancy rates at 9 percent, up from 8.3 percent over the same time in 2017. “Only the best will likely survive,” Retail Dive said, though it noted that big box bankruptcies are expected to slow in 2019.
“If you go down Main Street now and see who’s sweeping the sidewalk, unpacking a box or painting a wall, these are real people, not imaginary people from big companies. They all have personalities and it shows in their businesses,” Ms. Sylvester said. “That’s why we’re special and that’s why people come here. I think that’s really the differentiation. We set ourselves apart because we are a little more authentic.”
She said she believes retail on Main Street has an upbeat spirit to it.
“You turn over a rock and you’ll find an entrepreneur. You turn over another rock and you’ll find an optimist,” Ms. Sylvester said. “That’s the fun of being an American, and that’s the spirit that’s turning our corner.”