TOLA turns 10 with affection and a party

Linda Leuzzi
Posted 5/23/24

When Alison Buck had her grand opening on May 2, 2014, “half the stores here were unoccupied,” she said. “I was told I was taking a big risk.”

Buck just celebrated her …

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TOLA turns 10 with affection and a party


When Alison Buck had her grand opening on May 2, 2014, “half the stores here were unoccupied,” she said. “I was told I was taking a big risk.”

Buck just celebrated her 10th TOLA anniversary on Saturday in Bellport Village with balloons, a tag sale, a band, food and soft drinks.

Fans were already stopping by to talk or peruse the racks in the back of the store way before the 10 a.m. opening. Bobby Sterling, Bellport’s unofficial mayor, had biked over and an anecdote emerged. One time, concerned about Buck, Sterling rode all the way to the Westhampton TOLA when her Bellport store was closed. Sterling summed up TOLA as “very cool,” before heading to the Bellport dock, returning later for the party.

Taylor Phillips and Jeff O’Donnell with their dog, Parker, greeted Buck out front.

“You can call us volunteer employees,” joked O’Donnell. “We take over the store in the Pines when Alison needs a bathroom break.”

As Buck said, “It’s about creating a community experience. It’s so much more than being a retail store to make purchases. We as businesses need to provide experiences. That’s where the reward pays off.”

The big sellers are Bellport items like candles, T-shirts, sweatshirts, but the store cuts a wide swath with women’s apparel, dresses, jewelry.

And as a business owner, in between the friendly transactions, personal confidences come out; wives ticked off about dopey husbands, people going through divorces, folks about to enter the dating scene who need something pretty.

“I have a customer who’s gone through six rounds of chemo,” Buck related. “She’s been coming in for head scarves, sweaters, and is finally at the end of her rounds.”

And yes, people appreciate her discreet listening ear and empathy. “People bring me flowers, wine, gifts,” she said.

“Whether they’re in a good place or not such a good place, they’re in a better place when they leave.”

The economy admittedly wasn’t so hot when she first opened.

But here she is now, co-president of the Bellport Chamber of Commerce (Buck was recently honored as a Bellport Chamber Member of the Year). She’s established TOLAs in Bellport, Westhampton, the Fire Island Pines and has a bed-and-breakfast, Temperance Hall Inn. She has 18 staffers altogether.

“My husband Rob [Wegener] is a property manager in Newport, where we have real estate investments,” she added. Wegener was bounding back and forth helping to set up.

To tell Buck’s story, a bit of background needs to be related.

She grew up in Brookhaven Hamlet and graduated from Bellport High School in 1989.  But when it comes to taking risks, she could point a finger at her parents, who left the area in the late 1960s for Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and started a charter business, and also ran a small resort island hotel. Eventually, they returned here.

Buck had been an event planner and was manager of a couple of boutiques in Rhode Island when a friend texted her about the Bellport space becoming available.

“I was living in Newport when I devised a plan,” she said. “It wasn’t just opening a store, but to express myself in Bellport and find my home.”

The tag-sale party, while celebratory this year, isn’t her first. Buck said she started the event during COVID. “I decided to do it outdoors so people could come wearing their masks,” she said. “Shannon Gibbons had just finished her ‘American Idol’ gig and came to perform.”

Adam Roe would be playing later with his BNB Band. “I keep it local,” she said.

Talk about true patron love.

“Six of my Fire Island Pines customers are coming out from the city for our celebration,” she said. “They’ll be staying at Temperance Hall.”


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