All in the Family: Preston’s remains a waterfront anchor

Preston's

Peter, left, and Andrew Rowsom outside Preston’s Chandlery in Greenport. (Credit: David Benthal)

Andrew Rowsom recalls working at Preston’s Chandlery with his father, George, during high school and college. He’d help customers find shoes made for boating and pick out the perfect beach read. After graduating from New York Institute of Technology he figured he’d branch out — at least for a while. He was poised to take a marketing gig in New York and move to Manhattan. But as he envisioned life in the big city, he kept asking himself the same question:

“OK, how am I going to spend more time in Greenport? So I figured I’d just stay in Greenport,” Rowsom recalled. 

A love of Greenport is part of Preston’s foundation. Boston boat captain Samuel Truman Preston anchored in Greenport in the late 1800s and, like many vacationers today, never wanted to leave. He took the bait, buying property and establishing S.T. Preston & Son Ship’s Chandlery in 1880, next to the upstart waterfront restaurant Claudio’s. The shop stocked everything local shipyards needed to maintain the vessels docked in the area, including luxury yachts owned by the Vanderbilt family and J-boats that competed for — and won — the America’s Cup. 

In the late 1950s, advertising executive Frank Fagan, Rowsom’s maternal grandfather, came to town and felt the same way Preston had seven decades earlier. He took the helm of the shop from the founder’s son-in-law, Ben Rogers. After 138 years in business, it’s one of Greenport’s longest-running family-owned businesses, having launched the same year as Wm. J. Mills & Co., which has always been owned by a Mills.

To stand the test of time, Rowsom’s family has had to be willing to embrace and implement change — and they’ve been doing so fearlessly since the beginning. When Fagan realized how long Greenport winters were, he worked with his son-in-law, George Rowsom, to create a small mail-order business, allowing people to shop for summer while hibernating. As George grew older, he divested his shares to his sons, Peter and Andrew. They have also had to gauge buyer habits and adjust the products in the store accordingly. These days, outerwear from brands like Gill and Montauk Tackle take up the room once reserved for shelves of books and model ships. And the game in Greenport has evolved considerably over the decades.

“In the 1980s … there were a lot of empty storefronts, so anyone who came into Greenport with any money to spend came here,” Rowsom said. “Now, the dollars are divided up among a bunch of different stores, and that’s a great thing, too. It’s sort of like the garment district in New York — it’s all good for everybody.”

But as much as things have changed, one thing has remained the same: the customer-first mantra. It’s that old-school, mom-and-pop vibe that’s quintessentially North Fork.

“Even though we’re mostly retail now, we still have that mentality of hanging onto customers as much as you can,” Rowsom said.

And hang on they have. Rowsom, 49, has customers who still remember when he was learning to drive. 

“It’s pretty interesting to see how our relationships have evolved over the years,” he said. “It starts out [with them] being your customers and you’re taking care of them. Before you know it you’re having dinner at their house. They become part of your extended family, and you become part of theirs.”

There’s no doubt Rowsom and his older brother have become two of Greenport’s patriarchs, much like members of the Claudio family before them. When their neighbors sold their business earlier this year, the Rowsoms were happy for the Claudios and the new owners, but it didn’t have them rethinking their own future.

“Honestly, we love it here, so as long as we can stay here, we will,” Rowsom said. “It’s a great place. I don’t know what else I would do. It would be really tough, at this point in our lives, to part with it.”

One Comment

  • I am in the process of writing a maritime history of Long Island and want to include Capt. Samuel T. Preston but am frustrated about the lack of information that I can find about him. Previous inquiries to the Preston’s store in Greenport have gone unanswered. Can anyone who receives this offer any help or suggestions?