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An Island landmark turns 50: Bliss’ Department Store celebrates the family business on Bridge Street

From one summer to the next, the facade of Bliss’ Department Store, mid-block on the north side of Bridge Street, is unvarying in its familiar appearance.

Every morning, the beach chairs and bathing suits, T-shirts and flip flops appear on the sidewalk and beckon customers. This summer, though, a special addition has appeared in the storefront window beneath the Bliss’ logo: a sign saying “Celebrating 50 Years.”

The five decades since the store was purchased by Lenny Bliss have been marked by a reassuring consistency, under his stewardship at first, then his daughter Peggy’s, who purchased the store with her husband, Walter Johnson, in 1983, and today in the capable hands of their son Matthew and his wife Erika.

Like Peggy and Walter Johnson, they pride themselves, Erika said, on keeping the layout and feel of the store the same, even as they update the inventory to meet changing times and the needs of their customers.

Matthew and Erika Johnson are carrying the family tradition forward. (Credit: Susan Carey Dempsey)

“We want them to know we kept the same values,” of being welcoming and helpful, she said. “What I really love, though, is when someone who’s been coming here for years walks in and says, ‘It still has that same smell that I remember’.”

”It’s the wooden floors,” that provide that nostalgic smell, Matthew explained.

Since they took over the store two years ago, he’s done a lot to refresh and streamline the infrastructure, without losing the store’s old-fashioned charm.

There are many Islanders around today who can remember being greeted by Lenny Bliss behind the counter. Some can also recall when it was Basile’s, before he bought it. “And before that, it was an A&P Supermarket,” Matthew Johnson said — a little-known bit of Island history.

When he was staining old wooden shelves in the recent renovation, he came upon a section where the old name of Basile’s had been emblazoned. “I decided to carefully stain around it so we could keep it as part of the store’s history,” he said.

An A&P on Bridge Street at the site of the present Bliss’ Department Store.(Credit: Shelter Island Historical Society)

Within the store’s aisles, the necessities of Island summers can be found, in the same locations they have held for 50 years: beach toys on the far right; paints for decorating shells on a rainy day in the next aisle.

In the back on the left, sweatshirts for chilly days and souvenir T-shirts are arrayed. New designs appear every summer. Along the back, housewares and gifts for a host or hostess can be found, many with Shelter Island logos.

“I think my grandfather would like that we have Shelter Island cutting boards,” Matthew said. “When he lived in the apartment above the store, it always smelled like bread. He loved to cook and especially to bake bread.”

Leonard Bliss Sr., who died in 2002, was well-known to the department store’s shoppers, and he wore several other hats. Dining manager at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club, head of the Island’s Chamber of Commerce, and town supervisor.

Under his leadership, the Town Board appointed a committee to study affordable housing for young people and granted a 50% property tax break to 25 property owners whose income was less than $6,000 a year.

He was supervisor when the town took title to Crescent Beach in 1978. In 1979, he was instrumental in the town’s acquisition of 42 acres comprising the Shelter Island Country Club — Goat Hill — and nine acres of property on which the Ice Pond is located from the Heights Property Owners Corporation. It represented the town’s largest open space property acquisition to date. 

And for any Islander who wanted an accurate forecast of the weather, there was no more trusted source than Lenny Bliss.

Asked if there’s something in the store that Mr. Bliss could not have envisaged in his day, Erika pointed to the cellphone chargers. Cellphones would have been a stretch of the imagination then.

Who needs a cellphone? (Credit: Susan Carey Dempsey)

By contrast, an old wooden box telephone hanging on the wall, along with many other bits of memorabilia, seems to fit right in.

Matthew has a few of the wooden nickels his grandfather used to distribute, encouraging customers to return and redeem them with their next purchase.

(Credit: Susan Carey Dempsey)

Framed photos of the store’s proprietors, Lenny Bliss and his wife Mary, as well as the Johnsons, will now be joined by a picture of Matthew and Erika behind the counter. Erika noted the background of the Bliss’ photo contained cigarettes for sale — for 70 cents a pack. Those will definitely not be found among the inventory today.

A recent morning found families preparing for a beach day with purchases of sunscreen, shirts, sunglasses and, of course, toys. And Matthew had the weather forecast at the ready.