Ron Rothman wants everyone to know that his family’s store isn’t closing — even after 100 years in business.
Rothman’s Department Store on Main Road in downtown Southold is just moving one door west into a building he also owns.
Its entire contents will still be for sale, Mr. Rothman said Friday, sitting amid the eclectic array of items the store is known to carry — everything from guitars, records and art to pots and pans, toasters, thumbtacks, hardware and countless other items — which have been moved into a space that’s most recently been used as an art gallery.
“The building is in such need and disrepair,” Mr. Rothman said. It’s now for sale, he said, and a few people have expressed interest.
In moving the inventory, Mr. Rothman said he didn’t find any surprises or long-lost items.
“I know where the jewels are,” he said. “The jewels are the history. And I can take that with me anywhere.”
The store was founded by Mr. Rothman’s grandparents, David and Ruth Rothman, who decided they did not want to raise a family in the city. His aunt, Joan Rothman Brill, wrote a biography of her father, “My Father and Albert Einstein,” in which she outlines the friendship he formed with the acclaimed theoretical physicist, who visited the store looking for sandals during one of his stays on the North Fork.
As the story goes, Mr. Einstein’s German accent was thick, making it sound like he was asking for a sundial. His stepdaughter had stopped in a day earlier and reported back to him that it was “a store where one could buy anything in the world,” Ms. Rothman Brill wrote.
The store also served a functional purpose in town. The telephone company occupied the floor above the store and the Rothman family lived in a house attached to the building. If a fire broke out, the operator would call David Rothman, who would sound the alarm mounted on the side of the building.
“Dad would stand out in front and shout out the location of the fires,” Ms. Rothman Brill wrote. “I should think that many houses would have burned down without that arrangement!”
The store was later taken over by Ron Rothman’s father, Bob. He says it wasn’t in his plans to be the third-generation at the helm, that he just fell into it and has now run the business for 32 years.
Mr. Rothman hasn’t had any visitors as famous as Einstein in that time, but said he once thought comedian and actor Bill Murray had stopped by. The customer turned out to be only a lookalike.
“I have to say of the people who’ve come in here, more of them were somebodies I didn’t know,” he said, not revealing names.
When asked about changes the store has seen over the years, Mr. Rothman answered with a question: “How do people buy things these days?” The answer: Online and at wholesale stores, he said.
While the store has sold guitars since his grandfather’s day, Mr. Rothman said he expanded that product line and remembers flipping through guitar catalogues in the early 1960s.
“Guitars have become a big part of it because the rest of it just sort of went the way of Woolworth’s,” he said.
Mr. Rothman said he’ll continue the guitar jam sessions he’s held for years in the art gallery space, formerly the department store’s appliance and furniture showroom. Last summer, he played guitar on the lawn adjacent to the old store.
“I will miss doing that, but I can create the same thing here, I think,” he said.
“Downtown Southold needs something,” he continued. “You can’t do it like everywhere else where they’re selling wine, they’re selling beer. It becomes very hard to sell art or music. But you need it in the downtown.”
Mr. Rothman said he hopes a new owner can restore the building, which was previously a pharmacy, but if it has to be torn down, so be it.
In the meantime, he said, “We still have a lot of stuff for sale.”
Photo caption: The century-old store offers a wide range of ‘stuff for sale.’ (Credit: Kelly Zegers)