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Oct 13, 2010 10:50 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Doors close at Saks and Citarella; emotions high

Oct 13, 2010 10:50 AM

With an unceremonious twist of the wrist, a Saks Fifth Avenue associate locked the main entrance to the Southampton store at around 6 p.m. on Saturday evening—for the final time.

In the week since Saks Inc.’s sudden announcement that it would be shuttering the Southampton Village store within days because of poor sales, the company has said its approximately 35 employees at the Southampton store are prohibited from speaking publicly about anything having to do with the decision. But a former employee and customers who visited the store in the last days described tears and visibly downcast emotions in employees, with one regular customer describing a bit more business than usual, with customers coming to say goodbye.

“It’s a really sad time for us,” store manager Amy Winnick said as she walked down Hampton Road after the closing, flanked by what appeared to be two security guards. She refused to comment further, other than to say no one was allowed to talk to the media.

One day later and about 2½ miles east, the shelves at Citarella in Water Mill were already cleared and were being scrubbed down well before that store’s scheduled closing time of 6 p.m. Citarella, a gourmet food market company based in Manhattan, ran the Water Mill store on Montauk Highway for 11 years before announcing in late September that it would close on October 10 because of a declining customer base and proximity to a Citarella in Bridgehampton, which opened last year.

At 5:10 p.m. on Sunday, a young woman cleaning a bare shelf at the Water Mill store directed all questions to the store’s manager, Lau Zarate, who just shook his head and refused even to provide his full name—it was later provided by Citarella’s central office—or to say how many employees worked in the store. A few minutes later, he called out in Spanish to some workers near the entrance to close the door.

No sooner had the door been closed than Michele Tagliagambe of Brooklyn, who was visiting the area, rolled her shopping cart up to the entrance, her family in tow. They were turned away. Ms. Tagliagambe said they were stopping at Citarella to buy some fruits and vegetables after picking out a movie at the neighboring Blockbuster and were disappointed to learn of its closing. She said they would head to the Bridgehampton store instead.

About a dozen workers were clearing out goods that evening and hauling them onto a Citarella truck parked in back. Two young men who helped load the truck said they were employees of the Bridgehampton store but would not say anything further.

According to the owner of Citarella, Joe Gurrera, 12 employees worked at the Water Mill store at the time of the closing, though they rotate to other stores based on need. Mr. Gurrera said most Citarella employees would be reassigned to other locations based on seniority, though not all the details have been hashed out, and that Bridgehampton employees would not be affected by the closing. He said he informed the workers of the imminent closing in person on September 29.

“They were [saddened] by the news, but not surprised by it,” Mr. Gurrera said via an e-mail sent by his assistant, Nancy Palmarini. “They had seen the change in the amount of business in the last year and understood the reason for the closing. And they also knew they were going to be employed at our other Citarella locations.”

The 6,000-square-foot Water Mill building is owned by the Water Mill Shoppes complex, according to Mr. Gurrera.

He also acknowledged that Citarella does hope to have a store in Southampton Village in the future.

Back in the village, former Saks employee Alicia Lorenzo, 23, of East Quogue, was sitting behind the front desk at her new workplace, 27 Hampton Salon, on Saturday. She had worked at Saks for nearly two years before leaving in April 2009, but said she is forbidden from discussing her time there because of a contract she signed—though she did say she had spoken with some current employees.

“I know everybody’s really, really upset,” she said. “It’s horrible.”

Saks employees were given four days notice of the closing. Company spokesperson Julia Bentley said the fate of the affected employees is still unclear.

“At this point, we are not sure how many associates will transfer to other Saks locations. Many associates have already been offered other jobs in the community as well,” she wrote in an e-mail. Saks employees were offered the opportunity to transfer or receive a severance package. The nearest Saks is now the one at Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington Station, 50 miles from Southampton.

Saks is selling off its fixtures to the public every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting on Saturday, October 16, until it is liquidated or until mid-November, at the latest, Ms. Bentley said.

One Saks customer, Nancy Weintraub of East Hampton, said she stopped at the luxury retailer two days in a row this week to buy a beret, some makeup and a pair of Tory Burch shoes—even though there were no sales. “I feel like this is my family, and Southampton won’t be the same,” she said, noting that some of the employees were crying. “This is kind of an icon and it’s gone,” she said. “It added some civilization to the day.” Ms. Weintraub said she would continue to shop at Saks online.

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What's the big secret that employees can't talk about? What drama, the store is closing because their business stinks!
By Mets fan (1501), Southampton on Oct 13, 10 10:39 PM
1 member liked this comment
yeah where am i going to spend $300 on two bags of groceries .
By ranger (54), westhampton beach on Oct 14, 10 8:54 AM
When did the sale start?
By V.Tomanoku (790), southampton on Oct 14, 10 9:38 AM
1 member liked this comment
27East, how about ferreting out the rest of the story? As I here some locals have already stepped up to lease the Citarella space in Water Mill for a localized version of "Culinary Market" called "Avanti," so whats the scoop on this? Is a lease already signed or is Water Mill facing an empty building? Maybe time for some value and maybe time for "prepared foods" that are actually made on premises? Is it real and when will they be opening?
By WM_Resident (1), Water Mill on Oct 14, 10 11:05 PM
1 member liked this comment
emmm,... a rather large sign on Mtk. highway says 'Opening Dec. 2010'
By johnj (1024), Westhampton on Oct 18, 10 9:34 AM
when 3 doors close...3 more will open...
Times are, and have been tough, but there are lots of creative people doing innovative things. Saks is a generational thing, and is passing. Citarella is a geographical thing and will probably open in SHV.

This New Reality we live in ain't easy for all, but it IS the New Reality.
By michael daly (12), Sag Harbor on Oct 15, 10 9:20 AM
1 member liked this comment
Well stated, Sir. An accurate and astute observation.

This new financial climate seems to be dictating the age-old rule of biology:
"Evolve or become extinct".
By elliot (254), sag harbor on Oct 15, 10 2:08 PM
Last time I looked around, there are many more retail space doors closed, than are open.

Maybe you speak of "figurative" doors?

Yes, this may galvanize some, but what is the definition of your "New Reality"?

Plutonomy?
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Oct 16, 10 12:58 PM
you are so right michael that is the plan for citarella and employees are in fear of talking for they will lose there job.
By asurest (117), easthampton on Oct 16, 10 7:32 AM
There is a fine line between fear, and respect.

One may "rule" by either ideology, but it would seem to me the latter is a much better way to go.
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Oct 16, 10 1:00 PM