For a hundred years generations of Southolders have shopped at Rothman’s Department Store on Main Road, stopping by to purchase housewares, hardware and just about anything imaginable from an astonishing inventory of items.
But as retail shopping habits have changed, owner Ron Rothman, grandson of the store’s founder David Rothman, has decided that he’s ready to downsize and is selling the big white building on the south side of Main Road.
“The time has come,” says Rothman, 62, who has been keeping shop for over 30 years, following in his father Bob’s footsteps. “The building is in need of restoration and frankly, because of the way people shop now, we’re not very busy.”
Rothman is selling the structure but not closing the business; he will continue to operate with the same inventory in a similarly sized building he owns next door, just west of Rothman’s Department Store.
“People keep asking me if I’m retiring,” says Rothman. “I tell them I’ve been retired for years. This has been more of a hobby since people started shopping on the Internet and at big box stores.”
“People don’t go out to buy a 59 cent pack of thumbtacks anymore,” he said. “They order a case of them online and have it delivered to their door by UPS.”
Rothman’s Department Store was originally located in the Prince Building across the street. In 1918 David Rothman bought the present location, which included a two-story house where he lived with his family. Above the store is an apartment which once housed the local telephone company, according to Ron Rothman.
“The fire department would ring Mabel upstairs,” he said. “They’d wake up my father and he’d come out on the street and tell them where the fire was.”
There’s a lot of history surrounding the store, and anyone who grew up in Southold has a story to tell. One of the best stories comes from the original owner, however.
In the summer of 1939, a customer entered the store looking to buy a pair of sandals. David Rothman immediately recognized him as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein, but decided to play it cool and treat him like any other customer. He asked how he could help but because of Einstein’s thick accent, misunderstood and thought he requested to buy “sundials.” Although Rothman didn’t sell sundials, he offered to give Einstein the one he had in his back yard. After an amusing exchange, Einstein left with his sandals and a lifelong friendship between the two men began.
For many years Rothman’s sold appliances and mattresses in addition to housewares and hardware. Over time the demand for the larger items declined and they stopped selling them, while continuing to offer their regular inventory plus lawn furniture and summer items.
Rothman devoted a portion of the store to selling vintage guitars which, he said, buoyed the business for years, but as the music industry changed sales fell off for them as well.
While Rothman takes the situation in stride, his mother Audrey, a retired schoolteacher, says that the sale of the building makes her sad.
“I’m a little numb,” she says. “I watched my kids grow up with the store, my grandchildren too. Bob, my husband, worked here when he was growing up and stayed in the business.”
Rothman is in the process of moving inventory to the new location, but will be open for business while he does so. He will also continue to operate an art gallery in the store, something he has done for years.
“So there won’t be a grand re-opening since I’ve never closed,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe at some point if I get it organized enough I’ll throw a tea party.”
SoutholdLOCAL photos by Katharine Schroeder