“My grandfather, David Rothman, started the Rothman’s Department Store in 1918,” said Ron Rothman, who inherited the business and has kept the 100-year-old Southold legacy operational. “When my grandfather started the store, it was a department store and he sold dry goods, furniture, guitars, electrical appliances, and was even one of the earliest independent General Electric dealers,” he said.
“In its day, it was truly one-stop shopping. But not much has stayed the same over the last 90 years because retail has changed so drastically. We can’t compete against Amazon,” the third generation Rothman explained. “We survive by evolving and being diverse, and offer an experience that you’ll not find anywhere else. We still manage to have that ‘throwback’ feel to an era before the internet and niche type stores came about. It’s a little like a museum experience when you walk in.”
According to Ron Rothman, his great frandfather, Chaim (Charles) Rothman was from Warsaw, Poland, and his great grandmother, Baracha (Betty) Glick Rothman was from Miskolcz, Hungary. They immigrated to the United States and lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. David was one of five children and was born in 1896 in New York City. The family later moved to Bayonne, NJ.
Times were tough and the family was very poor. David quit school after completing the eighth grade to work and help support the family. He landed a job on the Jersey Central Railroad, eventually being promoted to a stationmaster. It was during this time that David Rothman met Ruth Samuel. She would ride the train to her own job and they would wave to each other every day. They were married in 1918. Having already spent summers at Ruth’s aunt’s home in Southold, they decided that they would rather raise a family in Southold than Bayonne. He gave up his job with the railroad and opened Rothman’s in the center of town on Main Road.
The store is known for having been frequently visited by Albert Einstein when he summered in Southold in 1939. The famous sandal story which prompted the friendship that developed between David Rothman and Albert Einstein was originally documented in a publication compiled by Joan Rothman Brill, David Rothman’s daughter and later by his grandsons, Ron and Chuck Rothman. David Rothman was a violinist, enjoyed classical music, was an amateur astronomer and supporter of local artists and musicians. Einstein, also a violinist who enjoyed classical music, would invite the department store owner to come to his summer home to play duets together. They would also take long walks together, with Einstein explaining his scientific theories to a man whose thirst for knowledge provided an exceptional audience for the renowned scientist.
While David Rothman was enjoying his new friendship with Einstein, his son Robert, Ron Rothman’s father, was 11 years old. “As an 11-year-old my father said he didn’t think much about the two old guys. He was feeling more like he was being inconvenienced because he had to entertain Einstein’s grandson, Bernhard (nicknamed Hadi) who was eight years old. When you’re 11 and you have an eight-year-old that is tagging along everywhere and you have to entertain him, you’re not too happy,” Ron Rothman recalls his father saying. “My father said it just seemed like all they ever did was ride around in the car and he was stuck in the back seat with Hadi while my grandfather and Einstein were in the front seat talking and driving.”
According to Ron Rothman, “Einstein remembered the summer of 1939 on the North Fork as one of the best in his life and credited David Rothman for it.” Working side by side with his father, Ron had the opportunity to hear his father’s recollections of the summer of 1939 and how he took Einstein’s grandson on his boat to entertain him and how many times Albert Einstein and some of his family members had to be rescued when he would go out sailing with his boat, Tineff, which, when translated to English, meant “junk.”
“Einstein,” he said, “was a terrible sailor and his father was called to rescue him on numerous occasions.”
“I’ve always been in the store and worked here in the early 1980s with my father,” Ron said. “I sort of fell into it once my father had run his course with it. I’ve worked it for more than 35 years,” he added. In addition to operating Rothman’s, Ron is a musician, artist, and author. He has published essays in the paperback, My Grandfather and Albert Einstein and is the author of Harmony, The People’s Guitar, which explores the company Harmony, when it was one of the largest manufacturers of stringed instruments.
“I’ve been involved in various aspects of the music scene out here on the North Fork for more than 30 years. I’ve played with several local bands including Southold Slim, and have promoted shows and have performed in musical theatre,” he said. Ron’s background has helped him transition the store.
“While we are still a department store, and still offer a whole variety of merchandise, guitars have become a main line of our business. They’ve always been a part of it. I’d had guitars as a side line for many years but with the internet and stores like Ace Hardware, mom-and-pop stores all over the country have been hurt, but I used these changes as an opportunity to make Rothman’s Department Store into the type of business it is today.” With the addition of Rothman’s Guitars and Art Gallery and his website and Facebook presence, the store has made the transitions Ron deemed necessary for the family business to continue.
A lifelong resident of Southold, Rothman believes that the store and the Rothman/Einstein friendship will always hold a place in history as it was the backdrop for one of the most important events that influenced World War II. “On August 2, 1939, scientist Leo Szilard visited Einstein in Nassau Point to request that Einstein write a letter to President Roosevelt explaining how it is possible to manufacture an atomic bomb and warning that Germany was already attempting to build one. The rest is history,” Rothman concluded. “Einstein held himself personally responsible and often discussed his feelings of guilt and sadness at what had occurred. His theories had made the monster bomb possible.”
Ron Rothman is married and has a son, Gregory who lives in Ithaca, New York and a daughter, Rebecca who resides in Key West. His wife, Madelyn, is a special education teacher in the Cutchogue School District.