The Pawnbroker Returns

“The Pawnbroker” — the 1961 novel about  a concentration camp survivor who suffers flashbacks while operating a pawn shop in East Harlem — is an American classic.

It gets new life next month, when a new edition is published.

PawnbrokerAuthor Edward Lewis Wallant will be once again thrust into the spotlight. He was part of a stellar roster of postwar authors — with Henry Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger and John Updike — but died of an aneurysm a year after “The Pawnbroker” was first published. He was just 36 years old.

Wallant had strong ties to Westport. He and his wife Joyce lived in Norwalk, but were immersed in the arts scene here.

They were friends with local artists and writers like Russell and Lillian Hoban, Larry Hill, Harvey Weiss, Stanley Bleifeld and Dan Wickenden.

Joyce later married Richard Malkin. They lived in Weston and Westport from 1965 on. Wallant’s 3 children — Scott, Leslie and Kim — attended schools in the 2 towns. Joyce was very involved in the Westport community.

Leslie Wallant

Leslie Wallant

Leslie Wallant’s love for literature was nurtured in both her family and the local schools. She’s written poetry and ad copy, and written and illustrated children’s books.

Her newest venture is a fantasy city based on the Periodic Table. It centers on the website, and blossoms into full novel fantasy adventures. Leslie is extending the fantasy with more books, a board game, figurines, trading cards, an app, video, and school workshops.

Her father would not recognize the world she lives in now. But he would be very, very proud.

Westport Cops Sport Sweet Pink Ride

A police car on a high school campus usually elicits a Pavlovian response: Kids flee.

But when Deputy Chief Foti Koskinas and Captain Sam Arciola showed up at Staples today, teenagers flocked to examine their ride.

Westport Police - pink Maserati

It’s not every day you see a Maserati cop car. Let alone, a pink one.

The 2016 vehicle is a rolling advertisement for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Maserati of Westport donated the car (though only for the month).

It won’t be pulling you over — it’s just for show.

But the police vehicle will be at Sherwood Island on October 18, for the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk.

Check it out there.

It’s not exactly hard to miss.

When The Music Died

Sally’s Place — the last record store in Westport — closed 2 years ago. It marked the end of an era, for devoted fans like Keith Richards and all the rest of us regular Joes.

Once upon a time, record stores were stacked up here like 45s on a spindle.* Sally bought her beloved store after she left Klein’s. At one point, there were not 1 but 2 Sam Goody’ses within shouting distance of each other on the Post Road, a musical version of today’s nail spas or banks.**

The Record Hunter occupied space next to Remarkable Book Shop — the now-forlorn corner of Main Street abandoned by Talbots. Jay  Flaxman oversaw that store, allowing teenagers like me to hang out, discover Richie Havens and Phil Ochs, and very occasionally even buy something.

Long before my time there was Melody House. A Main Street fixture, it apparently featured “listening booths” that were quite the rage in the doo-wop days.

Jean Rabin

Jean Rabin

Overlooked in most memories is Record & Tape of Westport. Clunkily named, and a bit removed from downtown — located in Compo Shopping Center, where either Planet Pizza or the Verizon store is today — this was simply one more spot to buy (duh) records and tapes.

But it too was a great place, and a labor of love. Owner Jean Rabin presided joyfully over its narrow aisles. She knew each customer’s likes, and enjoyed recommending (in her gentle Southern accent) new artists based on those preferences. If you didn’t like something, she gave a full refund — no questions asked.

It must have been hard, running an independent record store in a town filled with others (and a couple of chains), but she never complained. She loved music, she loved the diverse group of customers who shopped there, and she loved Westport.

Though she lived in Trumbull, she spent time here even after closing her shop. This past summer, I saw her at Compo. We talked about many things — including music.

Jean Rabin died last week. She was 79 years old.

Years from now, I can’t imagine anyone writing such a fond remembrance of Pandora, Spotify or iTunes.

(Visitation is tomorrow [Thursday, October 8], 6-8 p.m. at Spear-Miller Funeral Home, 39 S. Benson Road, Fairfield. A memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, at  Greens Farms Congregational Church. Donations may be made in Jean’s honor to the American Heart Association or Susan G. Komen for the Cure.)

*Kids: Ask your parents.

** Clever reference: One of the stores is actually, today, Patriot Bank.

Remembering Dorothy Straub

Dorothy Straub died last month at 74. She was a longtime music educator in Westport and Fairfield; conductor and administrator for the Greater Bridgeport Youth Orchestras, and past president of the National Association for Music Education.

Dorothy — the widow of Robert Genualdi, former Staples High School orchestra leader and music director of the GBYO — was beloved in Westport for her work with young people.

Countless students got their start in music thanks to Dorothy. Many made it their careers.

Greens Farms Elementary School music teacher Suzanne Sherman Propp is one. She writes:

Dorothy was the kindest, most patient and sweetest music teacher. I started playing violin with her in 4th grade at Bedford Elementary School. Both Cindy Gibb and I (and many, many others) took lessons with her, in school and privately, for many years.

Dorothy Straub

Dorothy Straub

Dorothy often tried to encourage me to move on to what she considered “better” teachers. But none were ever as patient or as tolerant of my, um, “poor work ethic” as she. I always ran back to her.

She encouraged me, when I was 14, to audition for All-State. I made it, where I met many other Westport music heroes, including Tommy and Chris Hanulik, Sue Sweetnam, Suzy Polk, Keith Conant and Tommy Greenwald.

Dorothy loved to hear stories of my crushes, and Cindy and my escapades. She had an adorable laugh. We always knew that her very best friend was Bob Genualdi. She was downright giddy when she told us they were getting married.

To say that Dorothy Straub was a huge influence on who I am as a musician, educator and citizen of the world is a vast understatement.

Cynthia Gibb — a 1981 Staples graduate who went on to fame as a film and television actress, and is now a noted vocal coach in Westport — adds:

When I was 10 years old at Bedford Elementary School, we had an assembly. Not all 4th graders studied a stringed instrument, but a violinist in town wanted to attract more students to music. I was fitted for a 1/4-size violin by a sweet woman with a warm smile. That began my decades-long relationship with Dorothy Straub.

I studied regularly with Dorothy from that time through my senior year at Staples. She prepared me for my school and All-State orchestras, and chamber orchestra with John Hanulik.

Dorothy Straub's legacy.

Dorothy Straub’s legacy.

I would not have known at that time how to say what I know now as an adult: It was clear that Dorothy loved her job. She loved playing music, but I also felt her love of teaching.

She was kind, patient, encouraging, complimentary and joyous during our lessons. She was quick to laugh and smile, even when I hadn’t practiced!

Many years after leaving Westport, I got a call from Dorothy asking if I’d host an event for her. I was beyond honored to collaborate with her at the Kennedy Center for the annual gathering of the National Association for Music Educators, of which Dorothy was president. I was able to publicly thank Dorothy for being my mentor and inspiring my love of music, which has been a significant part of my career.

Hearing that Dorothy was sick, I tried to schedule a visit with her. Sadly, I did not manage to see her before her death. The regret and grief has weighed heavily on me, so writing some words to honor and celebrate Dorothy makes me feel a bit better.

Also, knowing that all children in Westport now study a stringed instrument because of her means that Dorothy’s legacy lives on through the music that our young people make. They may not know her name, but Dorothy Straub’s influence is felt throughout our schools and children.

I fully expect that Dorothy is up in heaven making music with Mozart and Bach. I hope she subscribes to Dan’s blog, so she can feel my love and appreciation.

Randy Herbertson’s Very Local Visual Brand

Randy Herbertson is a Midwesterner. His wife grew up in California — where she had no idea that ancestors named Barlow and Hurlbutt had roots in this area dating back centuries.

In 1997 Herbertson — a talented, creative marketing executive — was transferred east by Conde Nast. He lived in Westport and commuted to New York, where for many years he owned a branding agency.

In 2013 he had a revelation. “Am I stupid?” he asked himself. “Why can’t I work in Westport too?” (His wife — the lead designer at Terrain — already did.)

Randy Herbertson

Randy Herbertson

He and his business partner, fellow Westporter Geoff Shafer, opened their multimidia design and promotion firm, The Visual Brand, downtown. In the 2 years since, Herbertson — who makes his living observing consumers’ behavior — has saved hours of commuting time each day.

He knew that would happen. What he did not expect was that he’d become part of a flourising, fun downtown community.

Operating out of reclaimed space on Church Lane — a building behind SoNo Baking Company — Herbertson and Shafer have found plenty of local clients. They hang out in cool places.

Herbertson has joined local business organizations. He’s hired Connecticut designers. “I’d never even heard of Western Connecticut State University,” he admits. “But they’ve got a great program, with really good people.”

Herbertson and Shafer found other businesses founded by former New Yorkers. Neat coffee and cocktails and Luxe Wine Bar are two. Westport Wash & Wax and Quality Towing are 2 more. Not everyone aspires to work in New York forever,” Herbertson says.

The Visual Brand office: inside and out.

The Visual Brand office: inside and out.

From his office — the mail sorting room of the very first Westport post office — Herbertson watches Bedford Square rise.

“It’s a bit of a pain,” he says of the construction. “But it’s exciting. It will be very good overall.”

His marketing eye has been caught by Anthropologie, which will do “some very cool stuff” with their repurposed space.

But, he says, “it’s important to keep the local element downtown — not just the big corporations.” He cites SoNo Baking as “very focused on what this community needs.”

His vision is stirred by the possibilities across the street. A choir member of Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Herbertson would love to find an investor, buy the adjacent Seabury Center, and turn it into a performing arts center like the Ridgefield Playhouse.

“I’m really bullish on downtown,” he notes. “We have an opportunity to be really creative. My son lives in West Hartford. They’ve done some pretty cool stuff up there, in an area that used to be not so good. I hope we can do it better.”

This photo on the very intriguing home page of The Visual Brand's website was taken just a couple of miles from the firm's office.

This photo on the very intriguing home page of The Visual Brand’s website was taken just a couple of miles from the firm’s office.

After 2 years, Herbertson says, he’s found “no downsides” to working in Westport. (He still has clients in the city. They’re just a train ride away.)

“It’s completely possible to do everything we did in New York — at a fraction of the cost.”

Plus, there are all those wine bars, coffee shops — and maybe even a performing arts space — just steps away.


Kevin O’Brien Remembers Needle Park

I’m often surprised how far this “06880” blog reaches. Approximately 1/3 of our readers are former Westporters, living all around the globe. Most have fond memories of growing up here. Otherwise, they would not be interested in what happens here today.

Of course, everyone has a story. It’s important to remember that not all of them are wonderful and rosy.

The other day, I got an astonishing email. I don’t know Kevin O’Brien. Yet his tale — which he allowed me to share — is like nothing I’ve heard before.

But — at least as much as everyone else’s — it needs to be told.


I lived in Westport 45 years ago. After dropping out of Staples High School, my sister kicked me out of her house.

I was a hippie type. I slept in Needle Park [the former hangout — now a concrete plaza — on the northwest corner of Main Street and the Post Road, across from the old YMCA Bedford Building], on a bench in the snow.

A kind young policeman sometimes checked on me to make sure I hadn’t frozen to death. I had just turned 17.

"Needle Park," circa 1970.

“Needle Park,” circa 1970.

Across from Needle Park was a diner. Early in the morning, rolls were delivered. If I hadn’t eaten in a while, I’d pilfer one.

I sometimes panhandled for change at Needle Park. If I got 25 cents I’d get a huge slice at Westport Pizzeria. When I wasn’t lucky I used kitchen packets and hot water to make “tomato soup.”

I was 6-1, 140 pounds. I often went days without eating.

I volunteered at the telephone hotline crisis intervention center in the Y basement. Seasonally, I worked directing parking at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Kevin O'Brien celebrating Christmas in Westport, 1970.

Kevin O’Brien (center) celebrates Christmas in Westport, 1970.

We had a group of mainly homeless friends we called The Family. I miss friends like Susan Burke and her sister Sarah, and Helen “Cricket” Wooten, none of whom I’ve seen since then.

Two other friends were Dee Dee and Marie. They occasionally used heroin, which was everywhere in Westport. I would like to find either of them.

For a while we rented the upstairs and attic at 35 Post Road West, across the foot of Wright Street.

We sometimes hung out at Devil’s Den, and imagined the dragon/troll that lived under the bridge.

There were seemingly a lot of aimless, homeless kids back then. Celebs like Paul Newman and many more never stopped or tried to help any of them. I never understood that. They were all very charitable, just not in their own hometown where kids really needed help.

As tough as life could be, especially in winter, I loved Westport and have many fond memories. I guess it’s the difference between experiencing all that at age 17 and 18, rather than age 62.

I’m brokenhearted to see what happened to Needle Park (on Google Maps street view). I’m glad the pizzeria is still there, even at a different spot. On a visit in the ’80s I left notes written on paper plates for lost friends on the wall behind the counter, but never heard from anyone.

Kevin O'Brien, in the Navy.

Kevin O’Brien, in the Navy.

Eventually I left Westport and returned to Florida. A few years later I enlisted in the Navy. After 10 years of senior enlisted service I was given a meritorious commission as an officer.

I retired from the Navy in 1998, was elected to city council, and became vice president/director of operations for an international corporation in Georgia. I later retired for good, and moved to North Carolina.

I’m planning a visit to Westport in a couple of weeks, on the way back from a road trip through New England. Having developed some serious health issues, this is a bucket list trip for me. Westport is a chief stop. God bless Westport.

I guess I’m living proof that a homeless, aimless kid living on the street in Westport can turn out okay.

Remembering Lou Barrett

Lucille “Lou” Barrett — a member of that great generation of post-war Westporters who helped define this town for half a century — died early today. She was 92 years old.

Lou was a lifelong educator. She began in Greenwich Village in the 1940s, and spent many years in the Westport school system. After she retired, she became a sought-after writing coach. Perhaps best known as a Staples High School English teacher, she was beloved by colleagues and students for her deep wisdom, gentle nature, and genuine concern for everyone she met.

Lucille "Lou" Barrett

Lucille “Lou” Barrett

As a founding member of Temple Israel, she helped create one of the town’s most active social justice institutions. As first principal of its religious school, she made sure that there was as strong an emphasis on current affairs as on Jewish education.

Lou was also a gifted poet. She was published frequently — including 5 collections that explore fearlessly and with intensity her Jewish heritage, her childhood in Brookly, and her maturing to adulthood and old age — and never missed a chance to pass on her love for the craft.

Her son George says:

Mom was humble, fierce in her convictions, devoted, and always focused on the needs of others. I have heard over the years many stories from people I don’t even know about how my mother transformed their lives, or started their careers, or pushed them to take a chance on something in which they believed.

She believed in her students, her children and her friends, and strove to help them see in themselves the strength and beauty she saw in them. She treated every one with honesty and respect.

She was also the connecting tissue for an enormous family ecosystem that now spans 4 generations, and multiple continents.

Lou’s husband, Herb, died this past May, at 93. The Barretts were married for 73 years. Lou is survived by 5 children, 10 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is set for Tuesday (October 6, 12:30 p.m.), at Temple Israel, with private burial service to follow. The family will sit shiva after hte burial at the home of Marvin and Joan Frimmer in Westport. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Congregation Kol Ami, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, or Temple Israel, Westport.

Oh My 06880 — Photo Challenge #40

The only bear sighting Westporters don’t mind — in fact, we love it — is the one in front of the Exxon station, on the Post Road headed toward Southport.

That was the image Lynn U. Miller captured for last week’s photo challenge. Bryan Schwartz, Dorian Barth and Jennifer Jackson all correctly identified the shot, based on “bearly” enough of the photo. Click here to see.

This week’s challenge takes us in a different direction:

Oh My 06880 - October 4, 2015

If you’ve seen this before, click “Comments.” If you know anything about it, add your thoughts too.


Sleeping With The Pope

As chairman of Westport’s Parks and Recreation Commission, Charlie Haberstroh takes his job seriously. So the other day he read a long Wall Street Journal story titled “The New Mattress Professionals.” Hey, beds are great spots for recreational activities, right?

Charlie plowed through tons of details about Eve and Casper, Leesa and Keetsa. These startups are apparently turning the mattress industry upside down, with new marketing techniques. One of those is “celebrity endorsements or associations.”

Near the end, this caught Charlie’s eye:

Pope Francis was expected to sleep on a memory foam relaxed firm queen-sized mattress by West Port, Conn.-based online luxury mattress startup Saatva’s Loom & Leaf division. The pontiff visited the Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary near Philadelphia last weekend, according to Stephen Dolan, the seminary’s chief financial officer. Mr. Dolan said the mattress was donated but declined to comment further and referred questions to the company.

Saatva chief executive Ron Rudzin says he is “simply honored and blessed” by the news.

I could not find a photo of the pope and his mattress. So this will have to do.

I could not find a photo of the pope and his mattress. So this will have to do.

Stuart Carlitz, chief executive of Bedding Industries of America, which manufactures Saatva mattresses, says he was approached by representatives from the World Meeting of Families, who asked if he could supply a bed for the Holy Father…. Mr. Carlitz says he donated the Saatva mattress, which retails for $999.

Today is Sunday. That’s a work day for the pope, so I couldn’t call the Vatican to ask how he slept.

Saatva Ron Rudzin, in a press photo. That's the Saugatuck River behind him.

Saatva Ron Rudzin, in a press photo. That’s the Saugatuck River behind him.

I had never heard of Saatva — let alone known that it’s headquartered right here in 06880.

I checked the company’s website to learn more about their Westport connection. I could not find much — beyond CEO Rudzin saying he likes to fish in the Saugatuck River — but I did find this:

Saatva is the fastest growing online mattress company in the country. Our honest passion for making each customer happy is the daily mantra. Our non commissioned, courteous and expert representatives give honest “no pressure” guidance. Our teams working in our 14 ‘partnering’ American factories are so proud to be building a luxury product that is healthy for the body and safe for the environment.

Additionally, we believe in building long term friendships with our delivery teams throughout our fulfillment centers. We love the culture that we’ve created as we are a wonderfully diverse and spirited group of employees who enjoy doing our part to keep America building.

So where is Saatva located?

There is no address on their website. BBB Business Review says they’re at 8 Wright Street. puts them at 25 Sylvan Lane South, Suite W.

I would have called headquarters to find out.

But it’s Sunday. Everyone is sleeping in.

In addition to sleeping on a Westport mattress, Pope Francis apparently made an unannounced visit to Landtech, the engineering consultant firm in Saugatuck.

In addition to sleeping on a Westport mattress, Pope Francis apparently made an unannounced visit to Landtech, the engineering consultant firm in Saugatuck.


In Case You Base Your Vote On More Than Road Signs…

Opinions are like you-know-whats: Everyone’s got ’em.

Westporters know exactly what to do about Baron’s South, the education budget, tree-cutting, downtown parking, Compo Beach, affordable housing, bike lanes, and a thousand different topics.

We are not afraid to share our thousands of different views with our elected officials.

When those officials disagree with us, we think it’s their fault. Even if we did not vote in the election that put them in office.

Knowledge is power.

LWV my town my voteIf you’d like to know exactly who you’re voting for next month — besides seeing their names on lawn signs — come to a pair of League of Women Voters-sponsored debates.

Tomorrow (Monday, October 5) focuses on candidates for the Planning & Zoning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals and Board of Assessment Appeals.

On Wednesday, October 14, meet Board of Education and Board of Finance hopefuls.

Both sessions are set for Town Hall, at 7 p.m.

But wait! There’s more!

Both days, at 6:15 p.m., voters can meet Representative Town Meeting (RTM) candidates. They’re our unsung civic backbone, with power over everything from final budgets to plastic bags.

Around the world, people continue to die for the right to vote. Here in Westport, you just have to go around the corner.