Guest Spot: Sad goodbye to Greenport’s Arcade

When I first spent summers on Shelter Island, in the 1970s, a favorite rainy-day excursion was a trip to Greenport to shop at the Arcade. If we needed beach toys, 100 percent cotton socks or sheets for the extra guest, we knew where to go. European visitors delighted in the novelty of finding measuring cups in ounces rather than grams. The store’s aura — its creaky wooden floors and leathery smell — was as welcoming as its inventory.

What to call it — emporium, variety store, five-and-dime? The Arcade had been an anchor of Front Street since 1928, when Samuel Levine, a Russian immigrant, began a more than 50-year family contribution to Greenport’s downtown (a grocery as well as the Arcade). In 1960 it was still a department store, carrying flannel work shirts and 45 rpm records in its January sale. Mr. Levine’s son Arthur, who was also a two-term mayor of Greenport, carried on the business with his daughter well into the 1980s.

The arrival of big box stores in Riverhead, however, made small-town retail success elusive. Bob Paquette, a New York City executive, knew there would be competition from Wal-Mart when he bought the Arcade in 1997, the same year Woolworth’s, the storied five-and-dime empire, went bankrupt. He did it anyway.

The Arcade held its own long enough to be named Business of the Year by the readers of The Suffolk Times in 2003, but it limped along. As the store was “hemorrhaging” (his word), Mr. Paquette thought about creating a real arcade with Whack-A-Mole-type machines but finally settled on the purchase of odd lots that could be sold at a discount. One-Eyed Bob’s Clearance Center & Discount Emporium had a brief life until, unable to find a buyer and battered by the recession, Mr. Paquette closed the store in 2010.

But in 2012 a possible future emerged. David Ackay, son of the owner of one of Greenport’s liquor stores and a bartending colleague of Mr. Paquette at local watering holes, vowed to return to providing general merchandise for locals. “If you need a pillow, you won’t have to go to Riverhead anymore,” Mr. Akcay said. But from the first, the store seemed to be poorly stocked and dusty. It was often closed at times when foot traffic on Front Street might have brought in customers.

Rumors of workers living in apartments on the second floor in violation of building codes were substantiated in May when Greenport inspectors along with fire and police officials raided the building. They found up to a dozen people packed into filthy, windowless, illegal rooms (some created out of closets). Zoned for commercial uses with no permission for apartments, the building violated many building and fire code provisions. The stairs and hallway were unlit and the Arcade’s service door was taped up so tenants could enter without having keys.

The Arcade’s owner, a corporation of members of Mr. Ackay’s family (his mother, Julie Lillis, ran unsuccessfully for village mayor in 2015), was charged with multiple violations of local building codes and the store was closed.

This is not the first verse of the Arcade’s swan song. When Bob Paquette closed the store in 2010 The Suffolk Times wrote, “Say goodbye to the Arcade Department Store as you know it.”

But that was different. Mr. Paquette was an honest proprietor conceding that the forces of legitimate competition were too much for him. Today’s finale is both sad and ugly. Sad because we are losing what the late Pierre Gazarian called, in these pages, “[a] trip to the good old days of small town USA, a Norman Rockwell detour.” Ugly because that loss has included the exploitation of powerless people. The Hispanic workers fled after the raid, some leaving belongings behind.

There’s more. Concerned with making the building safe and legally compliant, Greenport leaders decided to forgo a trial. Lawyers for the village and the defendants huddled with the judge and, citing illegal alterations, unsafe conditions and more, agreed to settle the case with a fine of $5,000. The defendants also must permit inspection and may not use the property for any non-commercial purpose. But that was already the law. These are hardly penalties that will deter similar behavior.

Perhaps some day the property that was the beloved Arcade will again be a beacon for children and adults, visitors and locals. Although it won’t be the repository of gadgets and sundries that we knew 40 years ago, maybe it will be repurposed to enhance the downtown business district. But I will still miss the chance to go downtown and find a replacement for my mother’s thimble.

Diana Gordon lives in Greenport and is the author of ‘Village of Immigrants: Latinos in an Emerging America.’