Located on 186 North Ferry Road across from the Dory on Shelter Island is Bliss’ Department Store, “The store with everything.”
Now owned and operated by Peggy and Walter Johnson, Bliss was the name of a previous owner, Leonard Bliss. Peggy’s dad renamed the store Bliss in 1972 after Leonard Bliss, who had purchased the business from Frank Basiles. Before that the store had been called Basiles; owner Frank Basiles actually had purchased the store in the 1930s. The building itself dates back to April 9, 1924, opening as an A&P “Dry Goods” store as recorded in the diary of Shelter Island legend D. Hannie Young. All of the shelves, stacks and floors date back to 1924. There was a fire next door on May 19, 2001 that caused some water and smoke damage to the merchandise which was replaced in total. However, the floors and shelves remained intact undamaged. There has also been some hurricane high tide damage due to the building located right on the edge of Derring Harbor.
Working at the store in 2008 (when I first wrote about Bliss Department Store) and still there now is Lynn Thomson. She knew then where every bit of everything was located. She still does. She fondly remembers coming to the store as a young girl. In fact, her dad Beverly Odell’s old ice skates stands high up on the wall in front of the check out counter along with a collection of store artifacts like old cans and bottle dating back to the A&P. Lynn informed me that A&P heir Rachel Carpenter summered on the Island and would shop at the store many years ago.
With a loyal clientele that included perhaps their oldest all time customer being Irving Gruber, who made it to 104 years old before passing, many “hareleggers” the term used by locals to describe someone born on the Island, stop in to visit as well as by odd items. One such person in 2008 was Dorothy “the playwright” who was looking for green dye. Although not a harelegger she was fifth generation of seven generations of family on Shelter Island. She and her father use to shop at the A&P. That was pre-1936. Before long I was hearing tales of yesteryear on Shelter Island. The stories shifted from decade to decade like songs played on a radio change so suddenly and swiftly. The homespun atmosphere of small town America lives in the very aisles of Bliss’ Department store
So what does the store with everything actually have? Lynn Thomson smiled and said, “We don’t carry anything that dressy, except women's summer dresses.” But they do carry Woolich sweaters and products, lots of high end Columbia gear, men’s Levi’s pants, and quality sweaters by United Knit Wear. For boat shoes or just casual wear Bliss’s has a fine stock of Sketchers for men and Grasshoppers for women. They carry all sorts of other Keds sneakers for the whole family as well as everything you need for a summer vacation in terms of casual wear. There are also Timberline products. An unusual item is the Shelter Island inscribed dog cap, which comes with a chin strap.
My favorite item is the big Clam Digger boots you just don’t find in most department stores. Lynn wanted it mentioned that Bliss’ has a fine collection of small house wares as well as underwear, shorts, socks, fleece, vest, hats, visors, rain gear, bedding, and all sorts of stuff for the tots to protect them from both the summer sun and the summer night breeze that Shelter island is famous for. The way the clothes are neatly folded and displayed in the wooden racks and shelves built for the A&P in 1924 gives the place an authentic Norman Rockwell feel. The sound of every step on the old wooden floor has stayed constant for 85 years. Just thinking back realizing Shelter Islanders from the pre-Depression roaring twenties walked these aisles to shop at a time when cars where just coming into vogue is comforting. This place is one reason why some say the Island hasn’t change that much since.
I asked Lynn so over the years who has dropped in out of the ordinary hareleggers and tourist. She replied, “South African Bishop Desmund Tutu, Jimmy Buffet who lived in Derring Harbor while his North Sea home was being built. Did you know that Derring Harbor is the smallest village in New York? Oh and yes, “Mange” the lady with the blue hair has stopped by.”
During the summer season Bliss’ Department Store is open 7 days a week and can be reached by dialing 631-749-0041 or 631 749-1056. In the off season it is only opened on weekends. So if you are ever crossing Shelter Island on Route 114, take the time to stop at Bliss’ Department Store. Park your car in front and walk into a place where time has not stopped but where a tradition lives on proudly boldly in the face of an ever changing world.