Magazine

The First and Only Grocery Store in Fire Island Pines

This is a special Fire Island edition of the 212, T’s rubric devoted to New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, for our Summer Entertaining issue.

WHEN IT OPENED in July 1953, the Ship’N Shore became the first general store in Fire Island Pines, a square mile of land that sits oppositeSayville, Long Island, about 50 miles east of downtown Manhattan. At the time, the area was sold as the perfect family summer getaway, a spot for parents and children alike.

Almost 70 years on, the Ship’N Shore looks quite different, as do the people who shop there. Today’s customer is more likely to be dressed in a Speedo and a leather harness than they are to be pushing a stroller. That’s because the Pines, as it’s often called, has become an almost mythical destination for gay men from around the world, a near-halcyon oceanfront oasis where uninhibited intimacy among men isn’t just easy, but encouraged.

Around 1974, a few years after the Stonewall riots catalyzed the queer liberation movement, word began to spread about a place not so very far from New York City where gay men, who were usually forced to be discreet, could enjoy themselves with markedly less public scrutiny. The Broadway producer Myron Tucker, then 27, and his boyfriend, Jack Rohlfing, used the profits and experience they’d gained running a candy store in the Pines to buy and revamp the Ship’N Shore, which was lagging behind its increasingly sophisticated clientele, and renamed it Pines Pantry. It is now the only place in the area that offers fresh produce, breakfast sandwiches and lube.

A view of Pines Pantry, the only grocery store serving the community of largely gay men in Fire Island Pines.Credit…Daniel Terna
“The center of the store, with the dry goods,” says Eric, has been hit hardest by the rise in online grocery deliveries.Credit…Daniel Terna
A line for coffee and breakfast sandwiches at the Pantry’s deli.Credit…Daniel Terna

In the late 1970s, Tucker and Rohlfing hired Eric Schrader and Laurie Schuhmann, a pair of teens from the quiet town of Sayville, to work summers as the Pantry’s back- and front-end managers. “They were like our second parents,” says Laurie of the couple. “They molded us into the people we are today.” A few years into their jobs there, the first cases of AIDS were discovered in New York. The number of visiting gay revelers plummeted, and the straight crowd that used to ferry over for sunset cocktailsall but disappeared. When Tucker and Rohlfing learned they, too, were H.I.V.-positive, they met with a number of potential buyers, none of whom, according to Eric, were equipped to handle the store’s intricate operations. In 1989, shortly before Tucker and Rohlfing succumbed to the virus, the newly married Eric and Laurie, with help from Eric’s brother, Marc, bought it themselves.

The actor and comedian Matt Rogers dressed as a Pines Pantry cashier for Halloween 2021.Credit…Courtesy of Matt Rogers

ON A BRIGHT summer afternoon, about a mile from the store, the comedian Matt Rogers, 32, is on the beach drinking with some of his castmates from “Fire Island” (2022), a gay romantic comedy written by and starring the actor Joel Kim Booster. A native of nearby Islip, Rogers is fascinated by the young female cashiers who work at the Pantry. “They’ve all dressed the same for generations: hooded sweatshirt, hair up in a messy bun, lacrosse shorts or cross-country shorts. Anything mesh and socks with slides,” says Rogers, who would know: He went as onefor Halloween last year. “They can’t spend too much energy on any single client,” he adds. “And if you make them laugh, it’s a huge deal because they’ve heard and seen it all.”

A summer job at the Pantry has grown into a coveted position. At 22, Emily Aracri, who has been working there for nine years, is finishing her final stint at the store before going off to law school. “Ever since I was young, I always knew that this was going to be my first job,” she says. “A lot of people in my family have worked here or on the ferries.”

Some of the store’s seasonal employees working behind the deli counter. Because of demand during peak hours, Laurie calls the deli “an animal unto itself.”Credit…Daniel Terna

One wonders what these small-town teens make of the debauchery that surrounds them. Eric says that thanks to years of cross-bay lore, they know about the island’s eyebrow-raising antics, which can include any combination of drag queens, party drugs, frisky 20-somethings, friskier 50-somethings, vodka, tanning oil and jockstraps. “Pulling money out of bathing suits is a big thing. Like, they’ll pull dollars out of their Speedos,” says Laurie. “But what are you gonna do? Just wash your hands afterward.” Kim Van Essendelft, the Pantry’s current front-end manager, says, “I could write a book about what we’ve seen and heard here.” Aracri agrees: “It’s a very open community of people, who will do and say things that are not what other people might consider normal — and that’s OK. This is a whole different world.”

The deli’s fish and seafood selection.Credit…Daniel Terna

Further down the coast, John Adelman, 40, a Bronx-based public defender who has been vacationing in the Pines for more than a decade, explains the logistics of Pantry shopping:

1. Get a sandwich from the deli.

2. Plan your actual meals around the deli’s meat offerings.

3. Check out the produce section, which he says has “pretty good vegetables.”

4. Pop into the adjacent Pines Liquor Shop, accessible through the Pantry’s back door, “to see what good rosés they have.”

“I’m always worried that they’re not going to have something, like a specific cheese,” he says of the Pantry, “but then it’s always there, tucked away somewhere.” (Although Rogers admits that he doesn’t cook at his own house, he likes to visit the store anyway — “just to see what it’s giving,” he says.)

A ramp at the back of the Pantry leads to the attached Pines Liquor Shop.Credit…Daniel Terna

Adelman quips that he’s never cooked anything as involved or refined as lobster thermidor on the island, but there is a culture of communal dining there, especially in summer house shares,some of which can accommodate dozens of housemates, who usually trade cooking and cleaning duties. “It inspires people to actually make something special,” he says.

In the early evenings, before dinnertime, Pines party seekers join one another at the harbor’s Blue Whale bar for what’s called Low Tea — it’slike happy hour, but with more men in heels. On nights when Low Tea proves particularly fun, meal preparation can resemble a drunken farce. “But I freak out about not having anything to eat, so I take the lead,” Adelman says.

Eric Schrader looks out onto the harbor, where his supplies are delivered twice daily during weekdays and once on Saturdays.Credit…Daniel Terna

BACK AT THE Pantry, Van Essendelft and John Klein, another manager, are preparing for the island’s Fourth of July festivities. “The Invasion,” as the holiday has become known, has been celebrated in a big way in the Pines since 1976, when a drag queen was denied service at the Blue Whale. To retaliate, the queen’s friends put on drag of their own and conquered the Pines by boat, a spectacle that continues to this day andnow draws thousands of visitors.

Klein — who got the job at the Pantry from his brother, who got it from their neighbor — says that the power in the store used to go out every Fourth of July until five years ago, when they bought new generators. “It’d happen right around 10 a.m., just when everyone on the island wakes up and turns on their AC.” In such a small store, he says, “there are always problems — it’s just a question of what the problem is going to be.”

The pastry display on Fourth of July weekend, during which, as part of an annual tradition known as “The Invasion,” a boatload of drag queens descends on the Pines. Credit…Daniel Terna

He talks about these hurdles with fondness. In fact, they all do. Maybe it’s why even the seasonal employees keep coming back every year, and why, says Eric, the “cashiers, stock boys, produce boys, the dairy guy, bakery girls, meat guys, managers, the cook and delivery guy” are willing to show up and help out when such complications occur. (About that: If you miss the last ferry to the mainland at the end of the day, you’re stuck. And if you’re late for your shift because you’ve missed the ferry there, it’s one of three strikes before Laurie fires you.)

The biggest threat to the business is competition, although not from another shop. In fact, a rival grocery store did open in 2007, but it closed a few years later because of lack of interest in its upscale wares (and, according to Eric, poor planning). “That was nothing,” says Eric. “What’s affecting us much more are these Peapods.”

Fire Island Pines, though better known for its reputation as a gay party mecca, has incredibly lush flora.Credit…Daniel Terna
A boardwalk on the more densely shrouded northeast side of the Pines.Credit…Daniel Terna

An online grocery service that delivers crates of supplies into the Pines, Peapod grew in popularity during the pandemic, and it’s making a dent in the Pantry’s sales. “There’s a younger generation coming in, and everything’s on their phone,” Laurie says. “They’re home late at night filling out grocery lists online because they don’t want anything to eat into their precious beach time. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but going to the grocery store is no longer a point of focus.”

Eric is looking at a different type of screen, from a camera feed facing the harbor and showing stacks and stacks of crates awaiting pickup. “At one point in the mid-80s, the Pantry’s produce section was listed as the second-best cruising spot on the East Coast,” he says, smirking. “We try very hard to keep this a fun place for people,” Laurie adds. “We enjoy what we do and we enjoy the community. We want them to want to come.”

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