Charge It, Please

I was sorry to hear Kmart in Bridgehampton may be closing, because if the rumor is true, it continues a half-century trend: stores in that location we are unable or unwilling to support.

You have to remember there were no shopping plazas out here. The Bridgehampton mall was the biggest thing since beach plum jelly around these parts. And when WT Grant announced it was opening a store at the brand-new mall, we were elated.

It was laid out, more or less, like all the others that came after it; men’s, women’s, boys, girls, housewares, hardware, toys and seasonal stuff like outdoor furniture during the summer, and Christmas stuff as the holidays were near. It was the first place out here where a whole family could shop together.

My fondest memory is they gave store credit cards to many young, local adults, apparently without running credit checks. I know that because they gave me one. I rewarded their faith in me by immediately spending my limit, $500; coming up with $10 a month to pay a back was another story entirely.

Surprisingly, WT Grant lasted about five years before going belly up, something about accounts receivable lagging hopelessly behind accounts payable.

In 1976, Woolworth, the noted five and dime, announced it was going to open where Grant’s had been.

Woolco, the new entity, would not give me a credit card but they had a “Layaway Plan.” It meant you put up a fraction of what the item cost and paid the rest off over time: but they kept the item until it was fully paid for. Instead, more than a few locals adopted the new “Stealaway Plan.”

F.W. Woolworth, the original five and dime, was really cool and lasted 118 years. Many of the stores had a full-service diner that sold a cup of soup and half sandwich for you guessed it: a nickel and a dime. Believe it or not, for the better party of a century, everything in the place cost literally a nickel or a dime.

Woolco in Bridgehampton had a place to eat, too. The chairs were plastic. It was hot dogs and French fries and crap like that. It was the Hamptons’ introduction to suburbia.

I ate there a lot, because as bad as it was, it was better than my first wife’s cooking.

Frank Woolworth literally created the modern retail big box store model. At its height, Woolworth had 5000 storefronts both domestically and abroad, with hundreds across the United States servicing communities that otherwise were devoid of chain stores. The failure of Woolco, its “discount subsidiary,” hastened the demise.

Still they came: Caldor, with the same kind of stock, and same type of clientele — us — opened in Bridgehampton. It went under. Then, of course Kmart, and after a tumultuous couple of years, the rebranded Kmart Luxury that featured upscale brands like Martha Stewart’s and, no kidding actually featured Martha Stewart herself, who was in the store a lot. In fact, she shops locally all the time. I saw her on the lay-away line the other day.

Each store failed in similar manner. Maybe it’s the drinking water out here.

Real locals know you have to go back before WT Grant for the first incarnation of the property — The Hamptons Drive-In: a movie drive-in where all sorts of debauchery took place and where many a young boy like myself was led astray.

It opened in 1956, and back then, it was a family affair. Mom would pack dinner, and the kids would crawl in the back seat with our PJs on. Rather than eat the good stuff Mom made, we’d all salivate at the ads on the screen. We would whine until Dad took us to visit the snack center, which was literally a roach-filled magnet for mice and rats that sold stuff like “crab rolls.”

Soon the drive-in became a date night spot, with like-minded teenagers replacing wholesome families.

There were 700 parking spots. You would pull up to a pole, take a speaker, and hook it onto your car window and then roll it up. The speakers weren’t very good, but neither were the movies.

Every night a half-dozen or so cars would pull away with the speakers still attached. My friend Tommy used to take one every time he went. He was convinced once he figured it out he’d be able to lay in bed at home and listen to the movies. BTW Tommy did not attend MIT when he grew up.

Anyhow, soon the proprietor got sick of chasing kids looking for free entry through the cornfields, and replacing the speakers night after night. The mall developers came calling and that was that, another piece of Americana gone forever.

We still go to the Bridgehampton Mall on Wednesdays. It’s like a date — get out of the house, spend a little money, eat a little junk food. If Kmart does go under, it’ll be cool to see what retail store we get next. I’m guessing they’ll try a department store like Macy’s, figuring it’s the Hamptons, so everyone has money to spare. I hope they give out credit cards.

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