Missing From Sag Harbor

Written By: Ron  Sickmen

As I sit on a weathered bench in the center of this timeless village with my wife’s handbag, covered by the latest issue of Dan’s Papers, resting upon the well worn slats beside me, I focus on the sign located above the business directly in front of me which reads: “Schiavoni’s Market, Established 1941”. I ponder the significance, if any, of the fact that both Schiavoni’s and I were “established” in that historic year. Fond memories of past experiences in Sag Harbor enter my thoughts as I view the sign.

Herb and Claire Weiss were the kind of folks that contribute to the charm and character of a community and inspire visitors to desire to return. When retirement from the manufacture of
soft goods became unfulfilling, Herb and his beautiful and charming wife, Claire, opened a small “antique” shop in the Village. Interspersed among the items offered for sale, mostly the contents of local estates, were objects that satisfied the definition of true antiques as well as contemporary reproductions that were sold as such. In addition, placemats, napkins and other remnants of Herb’s previous business were available for sale. One might find, within this eclectic array of merchandise, a baby carriage from the late nineteenth century, hand carved fishing lures and duck decoys from the turn of the twentieth century, well worn luggage with vintage travel labels from the nineteen-twenties, depression era glass from the thirties or a monumental brand new “Qing Dynasty” porcelain bowl.

I remember our first visit well. We found a small Art Deco vase we wished to purchase in the rear of the shop. Although the item was clearly marked, one rarely pays full price in an antique shop. I approached Claire to make further inquiry as to “my price”. Claire called to Herb, who was sitting near the entrance, “Herb, how much is this vase”? What’s it marked?”, Herb asked. “It’s marked a hundred”, Claire stated. “Ah, Give it to him for fifty”, Herb replied with a flourish of his hands. This scenario was repeated often during the fifteen or twenty years we visited their shop. The discounts from the sticker prices were always significant. And with every purchase, Herb would always say to each customer, “Have a few placemats as my gift to you”.

Herb was legally blind. He usually positioned his chair near the front of his establishment in one of several key areas abutting the paths to and from his finest treasures. There were usually one or two additional chairs in his immediate station, mismatched as to time and place of origin and positioned in such a manner as to convey an invitation to sit. As you approached Herb, you would be invited join him and to rest, relax and converse. Few could or would refuse his offer.
It is well established fact: when you lose one sense, the loss sharpens another. Herb could “recognize” a former customer as he or she entered the shop by merely hearing his or her short greeting. In making a purchase, you would become not only a customer but a friend. Subsequently, you were always warmly welcomed as such upon your return. It was not unusual to often encounter and be casually introduced to a celebrity visitor who was sitting and “schmoozing” with Herb and Claire about family, current events, local news or politics. The conversations were always stimulating. The store became a coffeehouse without the coffee. It became a wine bar without the wine.

The “watering hole” in the Village where John Steinbeck would relate tall tales at mid-century, originally located steps from their shop, is long gone. Herb and Claire’s gallery of the old, the new and the in between, in the nineteen eighties and nineties, was as close as it gets to such an establishment…but without the brews and distilled spirits.

Herb and Claire cared not if they sold anything. They didn’t need the income the store might have generated. They owned an estate overlooking the Long Island Sound on Nassau’s “Gold Coast” which could have been the inspiration for “The Great Gatsby”. Their small shop in the Village was merely the vehicle by which they navigated the summer months of their winter years by offering their friendship to interesting and creative people. They craved the camaraderie and socialization with locals and tourists that the shop provided, and they loved every single minute of it.

Herb would occasionally invite customers to join them for dinner at Il Cappuccino, his favorite “red and white checkered tablecloth” restaurant in the Village; where he and Claire dined many nights during the summer season. The chef, Jimmy, was a good friend. Although devoid of sight, Herb could sense any attempt by his guest to pay the tab and would never allow it.

Over the years, their short term leases on reasonable terms resulted in Herb and Claire’s frequent relocation to accommodate landlords who were taking advantage of increasingly prosperous times in Sag Harbor. Every few seasons or so, it seemed, one would find them in a different location on Main Street. Each shop became smaller and smaller. And then Herb and Claire’s business was no more. I was later saddened to learn of Claire’s loss of mental acuity and of Herb’s passing.

They were gone; now becoming a part of another chapter in Sag Harbor’s history. Undeniably, Sag Harbor is better for their having been a part of its summer community and Herb and Claire have indelibly become a part of its past. Their spirit pervades the bricks and mortar of every building and every crack in the sidewalks; which spirit will remain… at least as long as the cracks remain…which, I have no doubt, the Village guardians will allow to continue to
exist, long after we do not.

Some could argue that Herb and Claire Weiss were not important to the history of Sag Harbor. After all, this was the home of the men who fueled the whaling industry, the patriots who defended The Village from the British and the immigrants of the Fahys watch factory who brought a new, distinct flavor to the East End. As the essence of a community is determined by
the contributions of each of its citizens; no matter how insignificant they may appear, Herb and Claire’s overt display of love for their community and for those who passed through their doors on their journeys to someplace else should merit note in the annals of Sag Harbor history.

My wife is now exiting Schiavoni’s market and is reclaiming her handbag. Recollections of Herb and Claire are now neatly tucked and filed away in the fond memories compartment of my mind; at least until summoned, once again, by a random Village image. As we walk toward the venerable Art Deco era movie theater with its 1930’s “Sag Harbor” Cinema sign, we approach another weathered bench; this time in front of the theater, carefully positioned, no doubt, by the influence of the spirits of the Village past. My wife asks me to wait as she shops in an adjoining store. I stand by the bench and observe the everlasting beauty of the iconic sign. My eyes focus downward to the small store next to the facade of the theater building. I recall its being one of the earliest locations of the antique shop and the place where we first met Herb and Claire. I recall their merchandise. I recall our purchases. I recall their friendship. And I’ll never forget Herb’s voice, as we walked toward the front door with our first purchase as he called to us, “Please…have a few placemats as my gift to you”.