Back in November 1970, when Phil and Roseann Bucking pooled their savings to purchase The Sag Harbor Variety Store — then a Ben Franklin 5 and 10 owned by E.L. Hanson — they didn’t do any market research before taking the plunge.
But before signing on the dotted line, Mr. Bucking pulled out a notebook and wrote down a budget, including $8,500 for a down payment and $2,000 for fixtures. With a total of $25,000 available, he calculated that there would be $10,600 to buy merchandise, boldly rounding up from the original figure of $10,595.
“It was a good business. All the factories were open and we had a very good lunch trade,” said Ms. Bucking, who still owns the store with her daughter, Lisa Field, and considers herself fortunate that she and her husband were required, as part of the deal, to buy the building and the four apartments that came with it. A celebration is planned early next month to mark the family’s 50th anniversary of owning the store.
She said her husband, who had worked as a time-setting engineer at Bulova, where he helped determine the amount of time specific tasks should take, had always wanted to own his own business.
“We were in our 20s,” she added. “We felt we had nothing to lose.”
Despite challenges ranging from the passing of the village’s blue-collar economy — “It was like someone turned off the switch,” Ms. Bucking said — to the rise of the online retail monster, Amazon, the Variety Store continues to do a steady business if, for no other reason than it is staffed by friendly local faces and stocked with everything from shoelaces to pillows, craft supplies to kitchen utensils, board games to bulletin boards, and T-shirts to window shades that you still can get cut to size.
“We’ve never lost sight of the fact that we are a five and dime,” said Ms. Field. “The merchandise has changed, but the concept has not.” In brief, that concept involves providing consumers with a wide choice at attractive prices.
Competition, whether from Amazon or a new Grant’s, Caldor, or Kmart opening in the Bridgehampton Commons shopping center, is just a fact of life in the retail trade.
“You have to figure out a way to maneuver around that,” she said. “When someone comes in and says ‘I need it tonight’ we have to have it in stock even though we might be their second, third, or fourth choice.”
“Toys are always a fad,” she continued, as her mother remembered the Cabbage Patch Doll craze of the 1980s. “We had lists of people who requested them, so when the order came in we had to distribute them to those who had reserved them,” she said. Today, the must-have toy is the LOL Doll, with the buyer not knowing what the doll they purchase looks like until they open the package.
While an endlessly diverse array of merchandise is the calling card of any five and dime worth its salt, how those goods are displayed has changed. Today, shoppers navigate narrow, canyonlike aisles, with whiffle bats on the floor and puzzles at eye level, and board games stacked high.
When the Buckings first bought the store, merchandise was arrayed on tables, Ms. Bucking recalled. She said the impetus to hang souvenir T-shirts came when she and her husband visited the gift shop on a visit to a national park out west and realized it offered a better way to display their goods.
But some things have remained very much the same. You can still get an ice cream bar for the relative bargain of $2. It was $1 for years, Ms. Field said, but then the supplier went out of business. When a new supplier was found, they charged more, so the price had to go up.
And you can still give your toddler a ride on a rolling fire engine or a bucking bronco — even if it is a little lame with a broken leg — for only a quarter.
“It’s still something you can do with your kids in Sag Harbor,” Ms. Field said. “We might sell a $40 Barbie, but we also sell a 25-cent ride.”
The store’s owners say they have been blessed with good, long-term employees. Two of the regulars, Linda Rosner, who usually works the front counter, and Julia Feliciano, who works in the fabrics department, count their service in decades, not years.
Mr. Bucking, who died in September 2008, believed in service to the community. He was a founding member of the Merchants Association of Sag Harbor, now the Chamber of Commerce. And his daughter carries on that tradition having served the past six years as chamber president.
“He loved the store. He loved being here and interacting with the customers,” said Ms. Bucking.
Ms. Field said she remembered that her father used to say, “It’s not work. It’s just what we do.”
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic means the store has to enforce social distancing when it celebrates its anniversary on Sunday, November 1, but Ms. Field said there will be a celebration nonetheless, and has already ordered souvenir T-shirts and glasses. “We’ll be open for our normal Sunday hours from 10 to 2 and we are inviting people to stop by,” she said. “We’ll have giveaways and gift certificates.”
She is optimistic that the pandemic will have subsided by 2022, because she is already planning another celebration. “This store has been a five and dime since 1922,” she said of the date E.L. Hanson went into business. “So in two years, we’ll be able to celebrate our centennial.”