Whose Street? Our Street!

FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT AMONG THE MOM-AND-POPS ON MAIN

My grandfather, who ran The East Hampton Star a couple of Rattray generations ago, used to stroll downstreet of a 1930s afternoon to sit at the soda fountain inside White’s drugstore and shoot the breeze with the pharmacist, a fellow veteran of the Great War. They’d have a Louis Sherry ice cream and then he’d walk back to the newspaper office with a pack of Black Jack gum in the pocket of his suit. I walked down to White’s this morning to buy a lipstick, and thought about my grandfather’s Black Jack gum.

Main Street is to me kind of like Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines—a “dreaming track” of memory. I can trace my personal history down it, along a set of visible geographical markers: Here, in front of the 1770 House, is where, at 9, I tried to ride my bike no-hands to impress some dinner-goers but instead rode headfirst into an elm; here, at the Presbyterian manse, is where, at 11, I rang the doorbell for my friend Andrea’s costume party, dressed as Nancy Drew, only to discover I was a week early; here, where Intermix is now, some young boys of my acquaintance threw a ketchup-filled plastic baby doll into Mark, Fore, and Strike, splattering the golf togs with condiment before being accosted by the police. If we’re honest, these aren’t banner days on Main Street. Belatedly, public opinion has finally galvanized around the observation that retail rents have pushed mom-and-pops out of business. (As we used to say in bike-riding-and-doll-throwing days: No duh. I was in my teens when I first started worrying about this, and dreaming up tax-incentive schemes to persuade landlords to lower rents. Mrs. Murphy’s cow kicked over the lantern and burnt the city to the cinders in, approximately, 1986.)

Scattered in the doorways of the boutiques, like the detritus of an all-night party, we see moldering stacks of toss-away magazines. Every summer a few more of these freebie publications come to town to feed off the glamour and the apparently ready money. I sound like a snob — okay, I am a snob! — but most of them are the sort of thing you might flip through while alone on the Stairmaster, but would be embarrassed to leave on the coffee table at home, lest anyone think you’ve got bad taste. When it comes to “shopping local,” an independent newspaper is no different from Main Street’s mom-and-pops. There are boom years, and bust, but few people ever got rich off of community journalism.

During the Depression, the Rattray family ate a lot of shad roe and bluefish, because those dishes were cheap. The decade we’re in now is a rough time for print journalism, too — and yet we’ve never needed good journalism more. The Pew Research Center says that small-market publishing concerns like ours really are essential to democracy. It can be love/hate in a tight-knit community like ours — people don’t love it when we print the name of a friend arrested for D.W.I. — but who pays reporters year in and year out, week upon week, to go to meetings of zoning boards, town boards, and school boards? To cover court cases and protest marches, come snow or sunshine? Who keeps local politicians honest? It sure isn’t Supermodel Surf Yoga summer magazine or Hamptons Cheese & Hound.

This is why we are so grateful, personally grateful, to the advertisers who support this enterprise. We are back for another year, and, to our great gratification, are actually growing and getting stronger with each issue. Our advertisers are not just investing in a community business, they are supporting important local journalism. If you ask me, they are also proving they have good taste. (Insert wink emoticon here.) Hey, listen . . . at least our readers aren’t humiliated if a houseguest finds a copy of EAST in the bathroom.

Bess Rattray