There are not many Christmas songs that reference empty storefronts, occupied by multinational corporations that make hay while the sun is shining and then skip town for the winter. And if the Anchor Society of East Hampton has its say, no one will have to write one any time soon. It hopes the current reality of wintertime East Hampton Village, plagued by 55 seasonally closed storefronts, will change by next year as its “winter shops” program gains traction.
The idea behind the winter shops is “to help fill empty storefronts in the off-season with affordable retail, much-needed services, and other popular pop-ups residents desire — by coordinating with landlords, master tenants, and worthy local nonprofits,” the society says in a release.
“It’s about creating a village the residents want to use,” said Donna McDonald, a board member of the Anchor Society, landlord, and co-owner of Park Place Wines and Liquors.
The idea is to have a nonprofit or local mom-and-pop sublet from a primary tenant who shuts down for the off-season, only not that simple. “The landlord and master tenants both need to line up, hence the program has to keep cultivating those relationships. You need someone on that all the time, matchmaking and acting, essentially, like glue,” Ms. McDonald said.
“There are 125 stores in East Hampton Village,” she added, “and last winter, 44 percent were closed and 30 were left completely empty. During the off-season, the village is moribund.”
“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” texted Sarah Amaden, a village trustee who chairs the village’s business committee. “It has been done in other communities and proven to be successful. Imagine a vibrant East Hampton Village in the winter! It’s a win-win for the community, store owners, and landlords.”
But isn’t that the job of the newly reconstituted East Hampton Chamber of Commerce?
“Right now, the chamber is for the Greater East Hampton area, while the Anchor Society is laser-focused on East Hampton Village,” said Ms. McDonald. “The chamber is about existing business, while we’re more about marrying community needs with business offerings . . . how do we serve the community through our businesses?” That said, she added that communication among the society, the chamber, and the village business committee was key.
The winter shop concept is the Anchor Society’s first step in a “three-pronged strategy” to reanimate Main Street and Newtown Lane. Ms. McDonald says the early response to the idea has been phenomenal. “We’re launching formally in the fall of 2024, but we already have definite landlord commitment.”
“We contacted some local businesses that had some tenure, were well respected and trustworthy. Some stores in Southampton Village, for example, were interested in having an East Hampton presence. We need to know what our community wants, but from a landlord market standpoint, we also need Grade A businesses.”
Ms. McDonald understands the concept may not be for everyone. But she and Bess Rattray, founder of the Anchor Society, focused on landlords who consistently close from October to May, and saw an opportunity. Stacey Bendet, for one, the creative director and C.E.O. of alice + olivia, a dress shop at 79 Main Street, signed on, and has helped the society draw up a standard lease.
“By having a tenant in their space during the winter, it gives a store like alice + olivia a discount on their rent. We’re shooting for about a 25-percent discount. The winter pop-up would also pay for utilities during the off-season, so it’s a net gain for a master tenant like alice + olivia,” Ms. McDonald pointed out.
The Anchor Society is a 509(a)(c) public charity whose primary goal is to buy a property downtown and establish a general store there, “to meet residents’ and visitors’ everyday needs, as well as provide a community gathering place,” says a recent fund-raising mailer.
“I feel like a general store is an old-timey concept, but in fact it speaks to the enduring value of the community,” said Ms. McDonald. “A vibrant community carries the history of the place as well as integrates the present and looks towards the future, bound by shared values. Gucci, for example, isn’t necessarily oppositional. So many of the brands are really open to trying to help our community. They can be great assets. You’ve got to be open-minded and creative and accept what is and go toward what can be.”
The Anchor Society has invited the public to join them at 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 20, in front of the movie theater, as it updates its survey of existing businesses. Registering in advance of the event, at [email protected], would be appreciated.