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Springs General Store: Not This Summer

Thu, 05/25/2023 - 12:01

‘A much bigger project than I originally thought,’ owner acknowledges

Daniel Bennett hopes by this time next year that a couple with an open bottle of wine might be able to enjoy the sunset at a picnic table on the Springs General Store’s lawn. Renovating a beloved business in a historic building is a balancing act, he said.
Christopher Gangemi Photos

Walking through the shuttered interior of the beloved Springs General Store, built in 1844, Daniel Bennett, a 14th-generation Bonacker, and an owner of the store, pointed out a fireplace, long hidden by a coffee counter. Timber beams, original and until recently covered by a drop ceiling, run overhead.

He had expected to reopen the general store for the summer season. “Once I noticed the state of the building, I realized this was a much bigger project than I originally thought,” he said. Now he hopes to be open by June 1, 2024.

While Mr. Bennett does not have specific plans for the interior, he has a firm concept. “I plan on bringing back the interior aesthetically in time, to match the outside — which I do not want changed — to show the bones of the building and the history of this place through the structure. That’s sort of the philosophy,” he said.

Mr. Bennett explained that in the 1950s, a thin wall separated the fireplace from the rest of the store, to create an area where then-owner, Dan Miller, could relax. Mr. Bennett has a photo of Mr. Miller in the room, wearing a shirt and tie, next to one of Jackson Pollock’s famous splatter paintings. Pollock, whose house and studio were a five-minute walk to the store, famously traded Mr. Miller a few of his paintings in exchange for groceries.

The painting is surely one of a very few that have made the transition from grocery store art to the Musée National D’Art Moderne in Paris, where it now hangs.

“I’ve been coming to this property for a long time. When I saw it was available, I jumped at it,” said Daniel Bennett.

The general store is in the Springs Historic District, on Old Stone Highway, partway between the school and Ashawagh Hall and the church, and just as integral to the community.

Mr. Bennett owns the general store with his younger brother, Evan, and Jonas Lafortezza. The three are also partners in Doubles, which opened last July in Amagansett Square, and the brothers own two restaurants in New York City: Mimi and Babs.

“I’ve been coming to this property for a long time. When I saw it was available, I jumped at it,” he said of the general store.

Trips to France, which helped influence the menu for Mimi, his French restaurant, also introduced Mr. Bennett to a grocery concept that doesn’t exist in the United States. “You can go into a grocery store where they sell wine, cheese, and pâte. Then you can sit and eat the cheese and drink your wine, right there in the store. You buy wine at a retail price. There is no markup for the glass. I thought that was so cool,” he said.

He hopes to convert a shed, about the size of two parking spaces, and hiding behind the nonfunctional but iconic gas pumps, to a wine store. “The vision has always been a small, artisanal, natural-only wine shop in that space. There’s no place out here that does exclusively natural wine and I think it’s very much the time and place for that. It’s really borne out of this romantic beautiful idea of ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if people could eat their cheese and sandwiches and have their wine and watch the sunset?’ “

At East Hampton Town Planning Board meetings, board members feared a drunken hangout spot, which would cause problems for neighbors. “I’m 37. I don’t want to be taking care of drunk kids in the summer. That’s not what I’m here to do. I have the liquor licenses already. If I was that guy, I’d be doing that right now,” he said.

He stared into the dusty void of the store and envisioned a meat counter, fish counter, fresh produce, and a general store that caters to the needs of the community. “All of the things that have been a staple here, have to stay. The drip coffee, the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches,” he said. He wants to re-create the sitting area by the fireplace. For now this place, once full of activity and the spin of customers, has gone quiet and rests in a chrysalis state.

Outside, Mr. Bennett walked the property as cars flowed to and from the parking lot. “I recognize I’m a steward here and want the community to be able to enjoy this space,” he said. He stepped out onto the soft mud at the edge of Accabonac Creek, where a snowy egret danced along the opposite edge of the marsh. He gestured at the surrounding brush, much of it getting choked out by invasive species. Ultimately, with the help of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, he plans to replant the area with native grasses and other species, to help open a view of the harbor.

Such plantings could have a synergistic effect with the town’s recent remediation project on Pussy’s Pond. An ammonia plume, reported in December, coming from a recently replaced septic system at the Springs school, could be filtered by vegetation.

“If you look at the survey, it’s a minefield. It’s all pre-existing nonconforming. As soon as you try to update something, you trigger all the new codes. It’s a dance. If you do that, then this is going to happen, and then you’re going to ruin this. How do I keep the community and planning board happy and not let it ruin my dream and take the joy out of the process? And in the end, have a business that works in a building that’s not going to collapse on me?”

Mr. Bennett sat at a picnic table. “Who gets to renovate an 1840s farmhouse on the water?” he asked rhetorically.

It’s a project. Some might say it’s a money pit, but it’s his dream. Even though he’s only 37, he says it could be his last.

“I’m young enough, I can do this now,” he said.

 

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