There was a time when Henry Hildreth III wasn’t sure he wanted to take over the reins of the business that had been in his family for nearly two centuries.
After graduating from Southampton High School and “reluctantly” going off to college, Hildreth envisioned a future of traveling, surfing and perhaps working in construction. At the time, it seemed more appealing than running Hildreth’s, the furniture and home goods store that has been a mainstay in Southampton Village since the 1800s. After college, he obtained his real estate license, and split his time between that pursuit and part-time work in the store, keeping his options open. Before long, he had a seemingly insignificant experience he now identifies as the moment he decided to go all-in.
“I think it was around 1979 or 1980, and I was in the warehouse one day looking at a piece of furniture and I realized it had been there since 1969,” Mr. Hildreth recalled in an interview last month. “So I went back to the furniture manager at the time and said, ‘This thing’s been in the warehouse for more than 10 years, we’ve got to bring it to the floor immediately.’ It had been sitting around for so long, we were wasting money with it just sitting in the warehouse, but when I told the furniture manger, he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And I thought, what a lousy attitude. So after that, I told my dad I’d work more.”
A commitment to excellence and an eye for important details — like the three-drawer dresser that flew under the radar in that warehouse — is just part of what has made Hildreth’s so successful over the years, and has enabled the business to survive and thrive in the modern era, where nearly everything, from weeknight dinners to mattresses to wardrobe staples is purchased online, often from retail behemoths like Amazon and Walmart. As brick-and-mortar stores go out of business at an alarming rate, Hildreth’s has proven it has a rare staying power.
The department store, which first opened in 1842, is the oldest of its kind in the country, and it has enjoyed nearly two centuries of longevity for several reasons. Continuity and consistency have been calling cards for the business — the store still operates out of the same space it has occupied since the start (while opening other satellite locations over the years), and the original floors and front door of the Main Street building are still intact.
We’ve had loyal customers, and I think they’ve stayed because of the service and the qualityHenry Hildreth III
Mr. Hildreth, his wife, Colleen, and their oldest child, daughter Kailey, work together to run the store, along with several longtime employees. Loyalty is another mainstay for Hildreth’s, evidenced by the fact that many of its most reliable employees have been there for the long haul.
Mutually loyal relationships between employer and employee make sense for a business run by a family that has been in the country since the 1600s. The Hildreth family first set foot on American soil at that time when brothers Richard and Thomas came from their native England, escaping religious persecution and originally settling in Massachusetts before arriving in Southampton.
The family pursued several livelihoods over the years, including raising cattle, before Lewis Hildreth opened the store on Main Street. Goods were shipped from overseas, arriving at port in Sag Harbor, and were brought to the store by horse and carriage. At that time, Hildreth’s carried a variety of necessities, including food, harpoons, buffalo robes, butter churns, scrimshaw and buggy whips.
Lewis Hildreth died of smallpox in 1870, but his wife, Amanda Hildreth, kept the business afloat with the help of her teenage sons, Edgar and Henry. That’s when the store got its official name, E.A. & H. Hildreth’s, which is emblazoned above the main street building’s front door.
That difficult period was followed by a boom time in the early 1900s which saw the store double in size and begin catering to the wealthy New Yorkers who became second homeowners on the East End.
In 1914, Leon Pelletreau Hildreth (son of Henry) took over the store and then had two children — Henry Halsey Hildreth II and Eunice Hildreth —with his wife, Eunice Raynor. The store adapted to the changing times once again in the 1940s, when a bevy of cultural changes meant Americans had more free time on their hands. Necessities like food became the purview of big grocery store chains, and Hildreth’s transitioned from a traditional general store into a home furnishings store.
Leon’s son, Henry II, took over in the 1960s and remained active in the store until the 1970s. He married Mary Ann Burnett in 1953, and they had two children — Henry Halsey Hildreth III, who runs the store today, and Abbie Hildreth Patrikis.
The present-day version of the business is a success by any measure —Hildreth’s includes more than 80,000 square feet of space in its three different locations across the East End, and has more than 100 employees. A reverence for the past and for the family’s 13 generations spent in the U.S. is clear on a walk through the store, as various artifacts and photos are prominently displayed on the walls and throughout the store.
There is even a legend that the store is haunted by the ghost of Mr. Hildreth’s mother, as well as the ghost of Elizabeth “Ibby” Adams, a loquacious former employee who sold lamps and lampshades in the 1980s.
The ghosts persist much as the business itself does, and both Mr. Hildreth and his daughter agree on many of the reasons why they’ve have staying power.
“We’ve had loyal customers, and I think they’ve stayed because of the service and the quality,” Mr. Hildreth said.
The younger Ms. Hildreth, 24, said they make a conscious effort to adapt to the evolving desires and tastes of their customers, and that that attention to detail seems to be appreciated.
“We do try and change with the times,” she said. “We have become more modern and beachy recently instead of traditional, as we have been for awhile. Change is always good, and bringing in new, fresh products helps us stay current.”
While Hildreth’s has stayed a profitable business in the age of Amazon, Mr. Hildreth did not deny that the change in consumer habits has had an effect.
“It does become harder and harder, because years ago, some people said, ‘I only get certain things on the internet, and now, with same day delivery, almost everybody shops on the internet,” he said. “So it does become harder. But we have great customers and great products, great service, great employees. Those are all the things that go into it.”
The younger Ms. Hildreth pointed out a few advantages their business can claim over online retailers.
“We sell items that people want to touch and feel and smell,” she said. “And we do have a hand-picked element, which is something I’ve heard a lot of customers say.”
Mr. Hildreth added that so many years in the business, and good practices handed down through the generations have been key as well.
“It’s a family business, and so we wear many hats,” he said. “Nobody does just one thing. My wife does the job of, like, six people, and my daughter probably three or four people.” He paused, before adding, with a laugh, “I hopefully still do the job of at least one person.”
Retirement is terribly far off for Mr. Hildreth, and he’s happy that his daughter — who began working in the store’s children’s department when she was just 14 — has proven herself to be as adept as her mother at handling various aspects of the job, from inventory control, tracking inbound and outbound freight, advertising and keeping the website fresh. She’s even picking up more of the buying, design and customer service aspects of the business from her mother.
“They’re two peas in a pod,” Mr. Hildreth said of his wife and daughter. “They’re great together. They do everything.”
The couple’s other children — daughter Sayre and son Henry, who are both in college — have not decided yet if they will join in the business as well, but Mr. Hildreth isn’t putting any pressure on anyone. He knows the business is in good hands for another generation with Kailey at the helm. And he knows, of course, that figuring out whether or not to follow the family tradition is a personal journey.
“It would be amazing if they all did it,” he said. “But the likelihood of that, who knows.”