In seventh grade at the East Hampton Middle School, our math teacher — was it Miss Walters? in the faraway shaded dell of a half-remembered classroom where silently moving trees outside the windows cast spots of leafy light on the walls and floor? — taught us how to balance a checkbook by having us each run an imaginary store. My imaginary store sold candy and toys and was uncreatively called “Teddy Bears & Things.” It wasn’t a good name, but at the time, I still inhabited that dream space of childhood in which reality and fantasy mingle, and my pretend store filled my imagination with irresistible delights: red-licorice pipes, Steiff pandas, Madame Alexander dolls, and stationery sets adorned with strawberries.
If you are a tolerant reader — a persistent reader, who keeps going even when the columnist beats the drum a bit too persistently for their pet cause — you will have read a few columns from me, already, on the subject of the general store an enthusiastic band of citizens is going to bring to East Hampton Village. The vision for this store is so clear in my own head that I can see every detail, down to the size of the (big, brass) cash registers and the varnish on the shelves, but it only just occurred to me yesterday that if I didn’t describe it more precisely — get down to brass tacks — readers may not see it yet.
Come along with me on a walk-through.
You are en route this morning to the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter — where you will virtuously swim 50 laps in the pool — but first you need to get the daily shopping done. The Anchor Society’s general store occupies one of the older buildings in the village, a building with provenance and handsome, if ever so slightly arthritic, bones. It is a large property with a classic double storefront and a second story. It has entrances at both the front, by the sidewalk, and the back, off the parking lot. Today, you are out of the house early and have parked your car on the street side. The general store has a friendly, cheerful face. There are striped awnings, flower boxes on the second story, and, swinging gently above you, hand-painted wooden signs that describe what’s inside: “mercantile,” “general merchandise,” “strong coffee,” “ice cream,” “tailoring,” and “bicycle repair.”
Through the plate glass, you can see a counter where a clerk in an apron is wrapping up parcels with brown paper and string, for plastic-less toting. Rolls of colorful paper also stand ready at the wrapping station for birthday and holiday gifts. (This parcel service is a hallmark of our general store, an attraction for visitors, and doing the wrapping is many Bonac adolescents’ first job.) An early-morning klatsch of regulars sits on benches by the front windows, arguing about who was the best James Bond. A shopping bag containing a pair of favorite ankle boots that need to be re-soled bangs at your knee as you trot toward the door, which — ding-ding! — rings with a bell as you step inside. You are embraced by the pleasingly familiar general-store scent of Arabica beans, brown paper, and Murphy’s Oil Soap.
The interior is warm and welcoming — and, by Basic Modern taste standards, quite packed with stuff. It is a wonderful emporium, but cozy and traditional, rather than chic, per se. This is not a whitewashed lightbox where objets are displayed like art. It is a general store, where tidbits of news and gossip are traded alongside good bread and butterfly-print oilcloth by the yard. Everything and anything your household might need is here, from hand soap to nuts. The floors are stained a richer hue than has lately been fashionable; they are black cherry or walnut. High wood shelves, neatly organized by category (candles with safety matches, flashlights, and hurricane lamps; hard-to-find Amish noodle soup with Mecox cheese and dried Milk Pail apples) line the walls, and around the periphery runs a track for a library ladder, up which climbs another clerk in their apron.
Round display tables or pillars stand at intervals on the sales floor, as do ranks of freestanding shelving at shoulder height, among which you wend your way. Practical, 5-and-10-type items are organized in neat pyramids and pleasing arrays, as they used to do in small-town shops across America (and as they still do, for example, at Fortnum & Mason in London). From kitchen gadgets, flower-arrangement frogs, and potholders to flip-flops and fishing lures the goods are, where possible, American-made and of solid quality. Products manufactured locally are marked with special shelf tags. This is no souvenir shop, but tourists do come, because they can’t get iced tea tumblers made by the Libbey glass company of Toledo or Accabonac Farms Beef Snack Sticks at Walmart. East Hampton feels about its store as doting parents feel about their child: Our store is special. Our store is unique.
You pick up a pair of plain white-cotton Wigwam ankle socks, six Ball jars, some cheesecloth, and a box of extra wide rubber bands — you are planning to make cranberry jelly this evening in your stocking feet — and then cruise past the ice-cream counter on your way to the back.
The swivel stools are not yet occupied by cone-lickers, but a pile of paper soda-jerk hats printed with the name and image of the store is stacked and ready to be given away as a gimmick to the rush of kids who pile in for Rocky Road after school. (There is no kitchen and no meals will be prepared here. There is a grocery-convenience area on the sale floor, but it will not be zoned for gray water. Your banana split or lime rickey is served in paper or recycled cardboard cups. The paper packaging disappears into the compost cycle.)
The general store is run by an operator, who this morning stands by the cafe nook counting the coffee beans (which are from Java Nation or Montauk Roasters). The operator, aware of your taste in tawdry reality television, turns from his work to greet you with a joke about last night’s marital engagement on “The Bachelorette”; the general store is where everyone knows your name. The operator can afford to be here, running this business, because he or she holds a long-term lease at a mere fraction of the going Hamptons rate. The Anchor Society owns the building, you see, and is a benevolent landlord. This is how we foster commerce that serves community.
You head upstairs, where further practical, affordable, useful, and charming goods and knickknacks are displayed — fabrics and sleds and stationery — and where the repair counters can be found. The Hemmist is a simple tailoring service where you can get pants or skirts hemmed or a favorite shirt mended. At another counter you see a small-appliance repairman working on a radio. The knife sharpener also sharpens ice skates. You plunk down your ankle boots and ask the cobbler if he can add a new stacked heel. Fees for these services are posted in plain sight. Costs are reasonable, because no one is staggering under Gucci Gulch rental rates. You see? This is how the Anchor Society invites mom-and-pop service operations back into the village.
You trot down the stairs, giving Jupiter, the general store’s ARF-dog mutt and mascot, a chuckle under the chin and swoop by the Water Mill Penny Candy-style penny candy corner, grabbing some Beemans chewing gum and a copy of El Diario. You pay and as you leave by the back door — ding-ding! — you nearly collide with a man in too-tight racing shorts wheeling a titanium Trek road bike up to the bicycle-repair service’s drop-off rack. You wave to a friend who sits on a bench by the back door yakking with her boyfriend on her iPhone. You have decided to walk through Herrick Park to the RECcenter instead of driving around. The Red Sox may have won game three, but it is a fine day.