There he was, Linton Duell, sitting in a plastic chair in the back of the Orient Country Store on a pleasant Saturday morning, his back to the deli counter and the Boar’s Head meats behind the glass window, kibitzing with customers.
Hardly a rare sight in the 30-plus years he’s owned the Village Lane business, which the people of mainland Southold’s easternmost reaches think of as more than a stop next to the post office to pick up hot coffee, hot dogs, cold beer, cold cuts and copies of The Times, both New York and Suffolk. And yet there was something different, something unusual about Mr. Duell’s presence there.
It’s this: For the first time since the first year of the Reagan presidency, Mr. Duell was a customer, not the shopkeeper. Maybe not a customer in the strict sense, since he didn’t buy anything. But at times the exchange of money for muffins seems a secondary matter, one not to interfere with the exchange of news, opinions and gossip.
The store now belongs to Miriam Foster and her fiancé, Grayson Murphy, both 24. They left their jobs in the Berkshire Mountains, she as a baker for an inn and he as a chocolate maker, to, as Miriam said, “take a chance” on making a go of a small-market market.
“We really didn’t know what Orient was,” said Mr. Murphy, a native of south Texas, as he scrambled eggs at the deli counter. “It’s such an old-fashioned town. The store has so much history it’s like a time warp. All we need is a soda jerk in the corner.”
He might not have jerked soda, but Mr. Duell has done everything else required to keep the doors open since he moved back from Hawaii in 1980 to take over the store. The Orient native lived in the islands for eight years, rising from nightclub doorman to assistant food and beverage manager at the Kahala Hilton on Oahu.
Offered the opportunity to take over the country store, he didn’t hesitate.
“Real estate was pretty high in Hawaii,” he said. “I wanted to get married and I figured we’d have a place to live and a business all in one.” For the first 13 years, he and his wife Diana lived in the apartment above the store.
The decision to sell was based on a simple conclusion. “I was ready,” said Mr. Duell. “E.E. Luce had it for 55 years and I didn’t want to break that record.”
Eventually, the Duells plan to return to Hawaii. For now, he’s one of the regulars who stops buy from time to time to discuss matters monumental and trivial.
“You won’t have the same type of camaraderie and interaction as you did when you had the store, but hopefully the friendships you developed will endure,” he said.
His time in the store Saturday was brief, devoted largely to dropping off some paperwork and picking up his Pee-Wee Herman lunch box. It long commanded a place of honor on the top shelf above the in-wall air conditioner.
For the new owners, the Saturday before Mother’s Day was a time to make new acquaintances, especially with seasonal or weekend residents.
Drianne Benner, who lives next door, welcomed them after ordering a plate of eggs and filling three cups of coffee, Costa Rican Doka Estate, from the self-serve containers. “You’re lucky to have this place,” she told them.
Indeed we are, they said.
Grayson and Miriam met during their college years. He studied history with a minor in music at Tufts University in Boston. She majored in studio art and art history at Williams College in northwest Massachusetts. A native of Maryland, she has a connection to the North Fork through her parents, who have a home in Peconic. They’ve been living here since February and bought the store after another business venture fell through.
Buying what Mr. Duell said may be the oldest continually operating country store in the nation “was a really hard decision because we’re not from business backgrounds,” Ms. Foster said. “It’s a little leap of faith.”
They’ll continue to sell canned soup, Quaker Oats, beer, soda and such, augmenting that with Miriam’s baking and Grayson’s cooking.
One of Saturday’s visitors, Orient resident Lori Feilen, dropped off a collection of baking pans, flour sifters and the like picked up at a Southold estate sale that morning for all of $5. Included were several pie rings, used to keep the filling from dripping out into the oven, Ms. Feilen explained.
“If you don’t like ’em you can use ’em as Frisbees,” a male customer offered.
Ms. Feilen has more than a passing interest in the new owners, since she brokered the sale of the property.
“They’ve been very well received,” she said. “They’re smart, tenacious and very responsible. They’re just so right for the North Fork.”
At the same time, she’s sorry to see the Duell era end.
“He was always there, always ready for you to sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk about anything,” she said. “This is an institution and Linton was very important to the community,”