The Ever Evolving North Fork

Posted May 18, 2018 5:29 p.m. EDT

At a corner of Main Road in downtown Southold, New York, the North Fork of old is converging with all that is new.

Rothman’s Department Store, a bric-a-brac shop that has sold everything from thumbtacks to toasters since 1918, has moved down the block. In several months, its old home will reopen as Einstein Square. Named for the famous physicist who once spent a summer nearby, the new development will include rental apartments and a retail store around a pedestrian plaza.

The project is the latest change in an area in flux. In recent years, the North Fork of Long Island has experienced steadily rising home prices, as more buyers have been drawn to the bucolic setting and its relative value compared with its neighbor to the south, the Hamptons.

That interest has also put more traffic on the roads, as day-trippers from the South Fork or farther west on Long Island come to visit the area’s many wineries and farm stands. And high-end restaurants and boutiques that were once found mainly in Greenport, the area’s largest town, are now appearing in smaller locales like Jamesport.

“The nature of retailing has changed somewhat,” said Scott A. Russell, the town supervisor for Southold Town, which encompasses Southold village and other hamlets like Cutchogue and Laurel. There are more restaurants and specialty shops, as well as shifts in the area’s agricultural businesses.

Some wineries, for instance, are not establishing their own vineyards and instead are purchasing grapes from elsewhere and using a crush facility to produce wine. They then open tasting rooms — but “are these really wineries or wine bars? Wine bars wouldn’t be permitted in our agricultural zones,” Russell said.

There are also new crops, like a lavender farm in East Marion, and offerings like corn mazes and pony rides when the weather cools. “Traffic from day-trippers is no longer just in the summer,” Russell said, adding that in the fall, when pumpkin picking is popular, “it chokes the only two roads in and out of town.”

As more New Yorkers have come to see the North Fork as a reasonably priced and slower-paced option to the Hamptons, the similarities on the two forks have increased.

“The South Fork has been aligned with the city and the North Fork with Long Island; that has been a longstanding relationship,” said Jonathan Miller, the president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “However, as housing costs rose substantially in the South Fork, the North Fork has become a competitor.”

In the North Fork, a sliver of land between the Long Island Sound and the Peconic Bay that runs east of Riverhead, the high-end market starts at around $2 million, compared with $5 million in the Hamptons. But even lower-price homes in the area have seen steep price increases lately. In the first quarter of 2018, the median price for the bottom 60 percent of the market surged by roughly 15 percent to $480,000, compared to last year, according to a market report from Douglas Elliman prepared by Miller. The top 40 percent of the market, on the other hand, experienced a price increase of less than 6 percent, to $977,450.

“We are seeing a lot of people priced out of the South Fork coming here,” said Kim West, a sales agent at Corcoran. “Some will rent for a whole summer, even if they are only coming out for one week, or rent the whole year, even if they only use it for the summer months and maybe one or two weekends in the fall.”

To appeal to this Hamptons crowd, some homeowners are installing pools, a common feature on the South Fork. “Three years ago you would never see a pool here,” said West, who grew up on the North Fork. “But now people are putting in pools everywhere.”

Main Road Biscuit Company is another example of the area’s shifting personality. Specializing in its namesake buttery biscuits and artisanal granola, it opened 1 1/2 years ago in the small hamlet of Jamesport.

“You never used to think of Jamesport as a destination, but that’s increasingly changing,” said Marissa Drago, the restaurant’s proprietor, who moved from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, seven years ago.

Southold Town, with 25,000 year-round residents, has always had a vibrant retail scene, Russell said. “If there is any change in retailing, it’s that it is actually being replaced to some extent by these boutique-style specialty food shops and restaurants like you see on Love Lane,” he said, referring to a one-block stretch in Mattituck that features a cheese shop, a knitting store and the always-busy Love Lane Kitchen, where you can get a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal for $8.

He noted, too, that many of the newer businesses are taking over spaces that had been occupied by decades-old businesses. “Is that really an increase in retailing?” he asked.

Some residents have mixed emotions about the changes — even those who have benefited from them. Lori Guyer, the proprietor of White Flower Farmhouse, a boutique in Southold filled with linens and milk jars, said she had seen enough of an uptick in business that she now stays open year-round.

“We never used to open in the winter,” she said, but now, “I stock the store with Christmas inventory.” There is a part of Guyer, though, that longs for the days when the North Fork was a little sleepier and she could take the winter off. As for Einstein Square, the developers hope to capitalize on the building’s history. In the summer of 1939, David Rothman, who founded Rothman’s Department Store, was minding his shop when Einstein, who was renting nearby, came in to buy a pair of sandals. Because of his strong accent, Rothman thought the scientist was asking for “sundials.” When Einstein pointed to his feet, however, the misunderstanding was quickly rectified and he left the store with new summer footwear.

It was the beginning of a friendship between Rothman, who left school at age 14, and the world-famous scientist. The two men bonded over their love of music and their shared hobby of playing the violin. Throughout that summer, Einstein and Rothman often played music together, and their families socialized. Rothman’s daughter, Joan Rothman Brill, a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music, wrote a book, “My Father and Albert Einstein,” about the unlikely friendship.

The developers of Einstein Square hope to evoke that more simple time and will install a marble bust of Einstein as a memorial. “This town is yearning for something like this,” said Glenn Heidtmann Jr., an owner of Heidtmann & Sons, a building company that partnered with another developer, Jonathan Tibett, on the project.

Heidtmann grew up on the North Fork, his great-grandfather having opened the family business in 1902. “Because of the increased traffic heading east to Greenport, they pass us by. We want to get them to stop and get out and visit us.”

The developers are working out details of the project, including how many rental apartments will be built. They are also still searching for a retail tenant, which Heidtmann hopes will be a local business. The hope is that Einstein Square will open in the fall.

The changes to the North Fork are bittersweet for Heidtmann. “The sentiment ‘close the gate behind you when you come in’ is very common around here,” he said. “But there are too many people at the gate, the gate is getting pushed open. Change is imminent and we might as well get ahead of it.”