There are some things in the Hamptons you can count on: The sunsets are stunning, the summer traffic is horrific and if you’ve run out of dishwashing pods, the Sag Harbor Variety Store probably has them.
It’s no joke. Last April, a month into the pandemic—when everyone was staying at home, cooking at home and making dirty dishes—“the Cascade pods were the thing,” says store owner Lisa Field, whose family celebrated the Sag Harbor Variety Store’s 50th anniversary this past November.
“No one could find the pods, and we had them—I’m actually very proud that we’ve kept the store really well stocked,” she recalls.
It hasn’t been easy for any storefront during COVID-19, but the Sag Harbor Variety Store has made it through this year. Deemed essential, the store was allowed to open up early on, for which Field is “beyond grateful.”
“At the heart of things, we are a 5 and 10,” she says. “We are a general store, we carry everything you need for household items.”
That means everything from pots and pans, to sewing thread, toys to Tupperware and good ol’ socks, underwear, plain T-shirts and sweatshirts.
When most towns can only share memories of that five-and-dime store on Main Street, Sag Harbor has bragging rights. The Sag Harbor Variety Store remains a vibrant piece of local Americana.
The 25-cent rides for kids are still out front. The horse plays the theme to The Lone Ranger. The train, which was there for years, was recently swapped out for a fire truck that “whistles like a real fire truck.”
“Keep your kids happy for a dollar,” says Field. “The kids are thrilled.”
The variety store opened in 1922 as The Ben Franklin, and is almost a century old. Field’s parents, Roseann and Phil Bucking, bought it in 1970 from E.L. Hanson, when it was Hanson’s Variety. They didn’t know what they were getting into.
“My parents had no retail experience whatsoever,” says Field. “My father had been working in the Bulova factory, and when my mother told him The Ben Franklin was for sale, he said he thought it would be ‘neat’ to own the store,” says Field, laughing.
What was truly neat: The previous owner insisted the Buckings buy the building as well as the business. When they said they couldn’t afford it, Hanson said he’d hold the mortgage for them.
“That was the only way my parents were able to do it,” she says. “They were newly married, with young children, but through a lot of hard work and figuring it out as you go, they made a success out of it.”
The store has faced its share of challenges. While COVID has been “the most insane,” says Field, the onslaught of big box stores such as Walmart, which drove most mom-and-pop stores out of business, created a “particular challenge.” Though she acknowledges her store can’t compete with the chain stores on certain items, Field says she tries to keep prices reasonable.
And then there is the popularity of internet shopping.
“Yes, everyone gets it on Amazon, it’s very convenient,” says Field. “But you can’t touch it, feel it, see it, know what it is—and if you need it right away, we’ve got it here.”
Being able to roll with the punches and evolve is something Field says has helped the store sustain itself, as Sag Harbor has gone from being a factory town in the ’70s, to a tourist town, to what she sees today as “more of an ideal second home owners town.”
Anticipating and trying to plan for what customers will be wanting and needing during an ongoing pandemic has been another interesting challenge, Field notes.
“The first wave was the demand for hand sanitizer, paper towels, alcohol wipes and cleaning products…then it was the dishing pods,” she says. “Then everyone being home and bored out of their minds meant puzzle sales exploded. After that it was like, ‘How about board games?’”
Last summer, when the kids were not at camp and everyone was looking for something to do, tie dye “went through the roof,” says Field. Despite a limited staff, COVID restrictions and a cutback of store hours to allow time to properly clean and sanitize the store, Field says they were “crazy busy.”
As fall progressed, the demand for activities such as Halloween pumpkin carving kits were the trend. Many people stayed through the holidays. Business in winter has leveled, notes Field, but the latest kids’ toy, fidgets and pop-its (silicone shapes with holes to push and pop) are “flying off the shelves.”
She anticipates a busy summer and is hopeful that people will be staying out east through September. And beyond.
“We have a great local base, a very loyal community,” says Field. “And when I say that, second home owners are really part of that as well. That’s really important, and we really appreciate that.”
The secret to the store’s longevity and success? “Stick to the basics,” says Field. “We’re not Tiffany’s… Realizing what we are and staying true to that. I think that’s been the key.”