Q: Rothman’s Department Store is such a Southold institution. What generation shopkeeper are you? And is the shop pretty much the same as ever? A: I’m the third generation Rothman's. My grandfather started the store in 1918.
Little has remained the same over the last 90+ years; retail is not the same. We have always survived by evolving. We have survived by being diverse. When my grandfather started the store it was a department store, from dry goods to hardware to being one of the earliest independent GE dealers.
Q: Very early independent GE dealer? What’s that about?
A: My grandfather got a refrigerator, and as he was uncrating it on the sidewalk, Judge Hill walked by and said I’ll take it. Bring it up to my house. That’s how the GE dealership started and was a big part of our business for over 60 years.
We don’t sell refrigerators anymore, but we still carry a whole variety of goods for the home and garden and a still have a whole lot of hardware items.
Q: What’s it like to shop Rothman’s now? Will there be a fourth generation Rothman’s?
A: It’s a really a throwback to the era when retail wasn’t Amazon, wasn’t the internet or niche storefronts. We were always known as the shop that always had everything, even if the old guy had to go in the back to pull it out of a box. People who come now have a little museum experience; shopping the way it used to be.
At this point, the next generation is not taking up the mantle. What is needed is someone with the time, energy and money to invest in preserving a business. It’s an open opportunity for a person that wants a good way of life on the North Fork.
When you mix art, music and retail you can make a job become a way of life and enjoy what you are doing for a living.
Q: What’s your core business now?
A: Guitars. They always were a part of it, but after Ace Hardware opened up four years ago, it hurt the hardware department, as it did “Mom & Pop” stores all over the country. I’d had guitars as a side line for many years and used the opportunity to make it into the type of business it is today.
I’m a musician and have been involved in various aspects of the music scene out here for 30 years, from playing to promoting shows along with performing in musical theatre. While we are still a “Department Store” and offer a whole variety of merchandise, the guitars are our main line.
Q: What do you mean, guitars?
A: I sell, buy and trade new, used and vintage guitars. I probably have a larger selection of vintage instruments than anyone else on Long Island. By being a CF Martin guitar dealer and offering other instruments of that caliber, it helps to contribute to the museum quality of the experience of the store. I also do some repairs.
Later this year my book on Harmony Guitars is coming out in its third edition. Amazingly it is the only book about the Harmony Guitar Co. which was the most prolific manufacturers of guitars in this country. They were the guitars my grandfather sold, that I had access to as a child. I was one of the many people who learned to play on a Harmony.
Q: That sounds like a great book—will you keep some on hand, do impromptu signings for visitors?
A: Sure. People can get signed copies any time. I’m down to my last 20 copies or so of the second edition; but as I said the third edition will be here soon.
Q: Since you’re a musician, and connected to the local art scene so much, do you ever put on shows at Rothman’s?
A: I have a space next door, it used to a showroom for appliances and bedding. Now I’ve made it a gallery and performance space. As with most galleries, it’s a struggle to survive. It becomes a vanity gallery; and the primary reason to do certain projects is that the projects are ones that I want to get involved with or promote. The Gallery is available to rent (Art or Music) for the artists that might want to promote their own show.
Q: The history embedded in Rothman’s goes beyond the store, right? Isn’t there a connection to Einstein?
A: Yeah. Einstein spent the summer of 39, maybe 38, in Nassau Point. He came out here for the water and the sailing. He befriended my grandfather and they spent the summer and fall paling around.
That summer—’39—there was this very historic letter drafted in Nassau Point that Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt, postmarked Peconic, and it inspired the Manhattan Project. The letter happened when two other physicists, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, showed up and talked Einstein into writing it. Wigner was really along only because it was his car they drove. When they tracked down Einstein in Nassau Point, my Grandfather was there, visiting. There is more about this in my Einstein book.
Q: Do you have signs in the store, markers like “Einstein was here”? And tell me about your book.
A: In the store there’s a whole “shrine” to Einstein; especially cool is a series of pictures of him and other scientists walking and sitting on the rocks. People make special trips to the store just to see the photos. My grandfather took one of Einstein playing violin and would arrange for quartets and musicales with Einstein.
I also have copies of my other book, “My Grandfather and Albert Einstein” available at the store. It includes my grandfather’s stories about paling around with Einstein the summer of 1939, along with many of the pictures of the two of them. It includes the real story about Einstein’s sandals.
Q: Cool—so the Rothman’s museum experience includes a local history Einstein shrine. Are you open year round? Any limits to when people can soak up the Rothman’s slice of history?
A: If I’m here I’m open, if I’m not I’m closed. I’m here most days, 10 am-4pm. You can always find me on the Internet at www.rothguitar.com. This web site gives information about the store along with links to purchasing my books, gallery events, instruments and much more. My “Unofficial Harmony Guitar” web site also has information on Harmony Guitars.
Q: Have you ever lived anywhere besides the North Fork?
A: I’ve lived out here most of my life; when I graduated from college I worked with the East End Arts council, and lived in Southampton for 5-6 years.
Q: Why have you stayed?
A: Roots. Roots baby. I have been fortunate to be able to stay and live on the North Fork. If you can afford it, Southold’s a fine place to live. But it’s really hard to afford, which is why so many of our youth don’t stick around. Rothman’s has been a wonderful opportunity to serve my customers in the “Old School” way in a high tech world, as it still does.