Sag Harbor’s watchworks is the star of a new novella
When writer Erica-Lynn Huberty was a child growing up in Westhampton in the 1970s, she often visited Sag Harbor, which was then a run-down working-class town that had just lost a major employer: The Bulova Watchcase Factory.
Ms. Huberty, a writer of historical fiction, now lives in Sag Harbor, and she’s been closely watching the current redevelopment of the watchcase factory into a luxury condominium complex. To her, it’s both a socioeconomic conundrum and a a chance to personalize the history of the building, in a new novella titled “Watchwork: A Tale in Time,” released in late November.
She’ll be reading from the book at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 13 at 6 p.m.
“My childhood memory of Sag Harbor is a very rundown town with a factory that had very recently closed,” she said in an interview this week. “When I came back from college in the mid-1990s, the town was on the upswing, but the factory was still there, empty. I had this fascination, wishing something lovely would happen but at the same time loving that it was abandoned.”
“Watchwork” follows the lives of two people from different time periods whose lives are both shaped by the watchcase factory. In one plot line set in 1896, Jenny, a young woman in her early 20s, is working to support her family in the factory, and in the other, set in the present day, a local man named Ben in his 30s gets a job working for an out-of-town company to turn the factory into a luxury apartment building.
“Their stories parallel each other and collide,” said Ms. Huberty.
Ms. Huberty, who has written two other as-yet-unpublished novels of historical fiction and one acclaimed collection of short stories, “Dog Boy and Other Harrowing Tales,” said she often writes about a culture with which she’s intimately familiar — some of her work is set in England, where some of her family lives. She begins by telling the story of her characters, and then does the historical research to set the piece in time.
“I got about a third of the way through this book and said I have to start doing some research. I have to know what the characters in the factory are doing,” she said. “I’ve never seen anybody put a watchcase together. It’s different than the inner workings of a watch, but it’s kind of a complicated process for such a little thing.”
The factory was originally built in 1881 by Joseph Fahys on the site of a cotton mill built in the 1830s that had since burned down. Bulova originally leased the building from Mr. Fahys in 1937, and later bought the building.
“It has an unusual, interesting H shape,” she said of the factory. “It has really tall windows, which is unusual for a 19th century factory. The workers could see the light and they could get out. He [Fahys] was really conscious of not wanting to have a dangerous situation for workers.”
Ms. Huberty said she had wanted to walk through the factory since she was a child, but never risked her safety trying to get into the building because she and her friends knew there was serious environmental contamination there. It took her years to get permission to walk through the building from Cape Advisors, the developers of the condominium project.
This April, Cape Advisors agreed to give her a tour of the building, after she explained that her project was a work of fiction. She finished writing the novella in September.
“It was quite pleasant working with them,” she said. “But it was difficult knowing it wasn’t going to benefit more than a tiny handful of people who already had so much.”
“Do we really need, in our society, another window for Tiny Tim to look into, of things he could never afford to buy?” she added. “Is that going to make our society and our village better?”
“My ideal for it would have been something that benefited the whole of the community, all walks of life, not just people that hire other people. We’ve become almost a feudal society of people who service the rich,” she added. “I would have hoped for more retail spaces, rental spaces, instead of making it a condo. I think their donation to affordable housing should have been much greater. It’s going to amount to less than 2 percent of their total profit.”
The factory, she said, had once been a big part of what made Sag Harbor one of the most socially and economically diverse towns on the East End.
“The rest of the Hamptons are very homogenous. Different parts of the Hamptons were known for being exclusively white Protestant or exclusively Jewish,” she said. “Sag Harbor had an amazing history of different ethnic groups — Portugese sailors, members of the Shinnecock Nation, Jewish and Irish immigrants, free African American whalers. Not to romanticize the history — it has its ups and downs — but definitely it stands out in my mind. It’s certainly made me comfortable, as a grandchild of immigrants. I’ve been here permanently for 18 years.”
Canio’s Books is located at 290 Main Street in Sag Harbor. Ms. Huberty’s reading will be at 6 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 13. For more information, call 631.725.4926.