On a bright, quiet December morning in Sag Harbor, Barry “Joe” Page, a 74-year-old Vietnam Vet, was running his morning errands. After picking up his mail and his groceries, his last stop was Sag Harbor Variety, where, after some friendly banter with the cashier, he purchased a Daily News.
“Every day I do the same thing,” says Page, a life-long resident and retired heavy-equipment operator. “Sometimes I get potato chips, too. They’ve got good prices.”
The customer before him purchased a roll of wax paper. The customer after? A pair of Santa hats.
There’s ice cream for less than three dollars, too, but the sock-darning kits were out of stock. “We used to have them not too long ago,” says Lisa Field, whose family has owned the business since 1970 and is quietly celebrating the final days of the store’s centennial anniversary this year.
On any given day at the venerable Sag Harbor Variety, there’s a steady trickle of customers seeking that one special item or two they can’t get anywhere else, or just don’t want to. Others, like Page, have been coming in long enough to appreciate the familiar faces and small-town vibes, which haven’t changed all that much over the decades.
Since the early 1920s, this truly departmentalized store has been the Village go-to for sewing supplies, arts and crafts, classic games and toys, and all the other domestic items – practical and not – that make a house a home. Its current iteration is known for its dizzying selection of lamp shades, yarns and summer-by-the-beach supplies, but still has room on its crammed shelves for harder-to-find items like snow-saucers and pocket handkerchiefs and oil cloth by the metric yard.
Known affectionately as the “Five and Dime” — a term for a general store that sold items for 5 and 10 cents — Sag Harbor’s character-soaked version is by all accounts one of the last of its kind on Long Island. Its vintage façade, antique coin-op kiddy rides and method-to-the-madness merchandising evoke the sense of yester-year, while also speaking directly to the moment. It’s currently stocked to the ceiling with holiday decorations, lights, wreaths and, of course, piles and piles of Santa hats.
“But we also make sure to have something as small as ornament hooks,” says Field. “A lot of big stores aren’t really focused on the $2 sale of ornament hooks.”
Is that the secret to the store’s success? Says Field: “We don’t try to be everything to everyone.”
Founder (and Field’s mother) Roseann Bucking, who still runs the arts and crafts department (“That’s my specialty!” she says), agreed with her long-time customer Page. “It’s the contact with customers, the one-on-one, that makes us unique,” Bucking says. “We’ve always wanted it to be a social thing. Sag Harbor is such a great little town.”
One item you won’t find on the racks are tech toys and gadgets. The store’s brain-trust sees the value in analog, proudly introducing children to the wonder of things that don’t require a charging port. Field calls it a conscious decision to stock things like Silly Putty, Slinkies, and a plethora of puzzles with enough pieces to keep the whole family baffled.
While some things about the store do not make complete sense, Field says, it’s all part of the kitschy charm.
You might need to “wander into the corners to find what you need,” she says, or simply ask one of the helpful staff members.
But don’t let the decorative bric-a-brac, uneven floors and sometimes leaky roof fool you. And don’t call her, or the store, a dying breed. “My father used to say, ‘This is not our job, this is just what we do,’” she says. “We’re here to run a business.”
That spirit has helped her family weather everything from changing crowds in the Village to national economic downturns to the occasional world-wide pandemic (“I never thought I’d be rationing elastic,” she laughs.) During said pandemic, Fields says, Sag Harbor Variety held a small party to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It was a very low-key affair.
The Buckings, Roseann and her husband Phil, purchased the business in 1970 when it was known as the Benjamin Franklin. It was a package deal that included the business and the real estate. They were in their 20s and had four children, so the only way they could make the deal work was through a private sale. “It was a huge risk for us at the time,” Bucking said.
The risk has rewarded the mother-daughter team with an institution that remains, a hundred years and counting, at the heart of Sag Harbor Village life.
“It’s a different world [in the Village] now,” says Page. “I can’t remember that far back anymore, but I know this is still a place where you can say hello to people.”