“Where we are sitting, is one of the landmark buildings here in Orient,” said Robert Black. “It used to be a courthouse. The building was built in 1910 and the judge used to sit here with his gavel to hear cases. It had outhouses and a hand pump for the sink. Then in the 1920s, it was converted to an A&P supermarket, and after that it became a meeting spot for the Girl Scouts from the 1950s to 1960s.”
When the landmark building became available for rent, Robert and Leslie Black, who were dating at the time, saw it as an opportunity to expand on their personal hobbies and as an outlet for Leslie’s mother, Mary, to sell some of her specialty herbs from their family-owned farm, the Old Orchard Farm. In deference to the 18-acre farm owned by Mary and Leslie’s stepfather, Robert Van Nostrand, the Blacks named their shop the Old Orchard Farm Store.
Then, in 1983, just before the Blacks were married, they were given the opportunity to purchase the landmark building which housed their store on Village Lane. “We had greeting cards, gifts, flowers, potpourri, handmade thyme wreaths, candles, hippie-ish types of things that went with the times. Leslie’s mother was running the store for many years and she would also have some potted herbs here as well,” Robert said.
According to Leslie, the Van Nostrand farm’s crop was primarily cauliflower. “It was my mother who convinced my stepfather to start growing specialty herbs and vegetables, and before long, he was getting up at four in the morning and driving into New York City to the Green Market by Union Square, where he sold the specialty herbs and vegetables out of his truck.”
“He was one of the founding members of the 14th Street Green Market and also used to go to the Green Market at the World Trade Center. He also supplied the Dean and DeLuca food store and several other renowned restaurants in the city. But it was a tough life for them,” said Leslie. “They would dig the herbs by hand.” After several years, Van Nostrand leased out 10 acres of the farm, keeping eight to continue his own farming. “The farm was finally sold over 15 years ago for retirement purposes and is now a tree farm nursery,” Leslie said.
Love Sparked At The Starlington
Robert Black recalled meeting his wife, Leslie, in 1979 in Greenport at the Starlington Hotel. “Leslie was a teacher and always worked, even when she was off for the summers,” he said. A teacher in Queens at the time, Leslie was working weekends as a waitress at the hotel.
“My folks kept a sailboat in Orient for decades. We always sailed out here. My mother had never been to a bar. The joke in the family was that we were going to take her to The Starlington because back in the 1980s, everyone was playing darts and she was asking about it so much that we said we were going to take her, sit her at the bar, and have her play darts. That’s when I met Les.”
Having just gotten off from work, Leslie said she was having a drink and talking with her girlfriend when she met Robert. “We started talking and he said he was living in Ridgewood, Queens and I was teaching in Middle Village, which was a stone’s throw away. We had some common ground and we hit it off.”
Married for 35 years, the Blacks are proud parents of a daughter, Catherine, a varsity rowing medalist and a nurse practitioner in a private practice in Pennsylvania.
“Our heritage is very important to us. Being able to be part of passing things down from generation to generation means a lot,” Robert Black said. “Leslie’s grandparents, Elizabeth and Leslie Van Nostrand, were the first settlers of the Van Nostrand family in Orient. They summered in Orient for many years and then, in 1929, they bought a home. Her mother was born in 1926 and later worked at Eastern Long Island Hospital, Preston’s Marine Supplies and retired from Long Island Oyster Farms. Her family home withstood both the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954. Living close to the water, the family home was always under threat of flooding. After the 1954 hurricane, the home was lifted and moved back on the property line, leaving an expansive backyard but one that still afforded a view of the harbor.” It is in this family home where the Blacks currently reside, and have been renovating and updating it with Catherine in mind.
Off the Radar
After Robert and Leslie married, they moved to Pennsylvania to start a family and pursued their own careers, leaving Leslie’s mother to run the Old Orchard Farm Store. “We meant to come back sooner, but 30 years went by before we returned to Orient. We returned in 2015 with the thought that we would try to run the store before retiring. It was a labor of love and a hobby. We learned a lot and educated ourselves when we were away and over the course of the years, we changed the store to add more vintage art, especially art that was done on the East End. But sometimes in the summer when people are just walking around and come in, they think we are a farm stand and selling food. They are really surprised when they walk in. It’s because of the store’s name.”
Robert said that the store has been successful, and is open nine months out of the year. “Even after Labor Day, there is still a lot of things going on out here,” Robert said. “I also think being off the radar really helps. That means [customers] have to go out of the way to find us and that means that they spend some time to get to know us. We develop a relationship and that’s the fun part of it. It’s not just the store. They will stay and sit and talk and just enjoy the atmosphere.”
With the assistance of Terry Wallace, author and owner of The Wallace Gallery in East Hampton, the Blacks are hosting an art show at the Old Orchard Farm Store until December 1. The show exhibits Peconic Bay Impressionists and vintage Long Island paintings. For more information, visit http://www.oldorchardfarmstore.com.