A Remarkable Lament

A recent “0688o” post — about the evolution of the vest-pocket park on the corner of Post Road and Main Street, from wooden benches and trees to concrete plaza — drew the usual slew of comments.

What a shame! some wailed.

You can’t stop progress! others countered. (I’m paraphrasing here.)

And there, smack in the middle, was this:

Now is about the time someone laments the passing of the Remarkable Book Store.

Well, yeah.

It’s always a good time to lament the passing of “Remarkable.”

For the increasing number of Westporters who never knew it, Remarkable was a homey shop in a former 1700s home at the corner of Main Street and Parker Harder Plaza (the exact end of the block that starts with the new concrete “park,” come to think of it).

The Remarkable Book Shop.

The 2011 way to describe it: It’s now Talbots.

“Remarkable” — the name, uber-cleverly, referred not just to its books, maps and knick-knacks but to the backward spelling of owner Esther Kramer’s last name — was painted a distinctive pink.

Even more remarkable was what was inside.  Books on every topic imaginable — including cutting-edge topics like women’s rights — filled uneven shelves.  Overstuffed chairs invited browsers to sit, read and linger, long before Barnes & Noble turned that concept into corporate policy.

A cat curled in the corner.

The floor was wooden, and uneven — something Esther and her staff never were.  They knew every customer — from Paul Newman and hotshot writers down to 3rd graders — by name.  Esther and her staff knew everyone’s tastes, and never hesitated to recommend a good read.

They knew what a local bookstore could — and should — be:  A community gathering place.  Warm, friendly, funky.  Something remarkable, which no one seemed to remark upon until it was gone.

If some of those words sound familiar, it’s because I wrote them last April, shortly after Esther Kramer’s death.

I lamented the passing of the owner. And I lamented the bookstore’s passing too.

So sue me.

Barnes & Noble

I’m not naive. Having written 16 books myself, I know the economics of bookstores. The bulk of my royalties came from Barnes & Noble and Amazon, not Giovanni’s Room (just hanging on in Philadelphia) or A Different Light (its 3 locations — New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles — are all closed).

Where do I buy my books? Barnes & Noble. Amazon. The iPad store.

But being a realist doesn’t mean I can’t lament the loss of a mom-and-pop (pop was Sidney Kramer, a noted New York publisher) store that was funky, familiar and fun.

A store that added a bit of life to downtown, at a time when other locally owned shops sold African clothing, records, used blue jeans and pizza. (Okay, Westport Pizzeria‘s still there.)

I know we won’t see a return of those shops to Main Street. Nor will we see small bookstores with knowledgeable clerks and a cat curled in the corner cropping up like, um, Gaps in airport terminals.

Santayana said (basically), those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

I say, those who diss our past are doomed to spend their lives in soulless corporate boxes, not knowing what they missed.

Though the parking, prices and pastries at Barnes & Noble are all pretty good.

41 responses to “A Remarkable Lament

  1. Bonnie Scott Connolly

    I totally lament the passing of the Remarkable Book Store. I count that among my most favorite experiences of growing up in Westport. It expanded my horizons and introduced me to “funky” and “artsy”. I loved that store and environment.

  2. I too loved the pink book store and miss it almost as much as Kleins book department. Those people could always suggest a good read. When I think of remarkable I think of a great women I had the pleasure to work for named Pat Nebel. Pat used to talk about the building. not as a bookstore but as her in-laws home! She was a remarkable woman and as the director of the Co-op nursery school will be remembered fondly by many for a very long time.

  3. Thanks for your remarks, Dan!

  4. I think I recall more than one cat?

  5. Sven Davidson

    Funky is right – there were always really fun things on the shelves in additon to the books: great stocking-stuffers like rubber chickens, chattering teeth, etc. If the folks at Talbots had had any sense of community, they would have left a small patch of the pink paint somewhere on the exterior.

  6. For reliving that Remarkable experience, my I recommend the Flying Pig in Shelburne, Vermont or the Galaxy Bookstore over in Hardwick. — Karl Decker

    • The Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, is actually doing pretty well, and is not all that far from Westport (it would be a full day trip there and back but the town of Manchester is definitely worth it.). It isn’t exactly the same as Remarkable of course, but it is an independent, eclectic bookstore that includes some additional fun products. Highly recommended.

    • And even closer to home is Barrett Bookstore in Darien, near the Noroton train station on Heights Road. Bill Clinton is even making a stop there!

  7. Of course it’s a bit of a drive… –KD

  8. …but a lot more fun than the Post Road. –KD

  9. David J. Loffredo

    According to one of your other posters when we were debating the value of historic homes vs. teardowns….”The unique character of Westport comes from its people and not the structures that cloud its landscape. Anybody who puts strong emphasis on buildings is either being pretentious or stroking their ego.”

    I tend to believe it’s a combination of the two.

  10. A picture is worth a thousand words…..

  11. Wendy Crowther

    Great sentiments, Dan. I second that emotion!

  12. When I read the comment about rubber chickens and chattering teeth, I instantly thought of The Wizard of Westport! I loved that store too!!!

  13. R. J. Julia in Madison is remarkable too!

  14. Good one, Dan. The Remarkable Book Shop and the Westport Public Library started many of us children on a lifelong journey of reading. I’ve been an avid reader because of growing up in both of places of books. I particularly remember the long waiting lines in Rem. Bk. Shop on rainy fall afternoons to have Joan Walsh Anglund sign copies of her books. We handed our JWA dolls and books down to our own daughters. It was a remarkable time to be in Westport.

  15. I miss the dump where the library now stands.

  16. The Remarkable Book Store seems to be the symbolic renassisance of past Westport. People forget the gas station in mid-Main street and the array of rather dumpy stores that now proudly fly a corporate banner. George Santayana was often misquoted but I dare say, history will not repeat itself with a pink Mom and Pop store anytime soon. And for some of us, that is a blessing.

    • Virginia Gilbertie

      I object!

      When I grew up here the stores on main street were not “rather dumpy”. They were unique and friendly – we knew the owners and their stories. They were the fabric of our town – involved in their families, the community, the town government, and religious organizations. Shopping Main Street was an adventure to see what cool, interesting prizes we could find. Who cares if there was a gas station there? We knew those owners, too, as well as the high school students who worked there.

      Many of the stores that replaced the “dumpy” mom and pops are generic, anonymous, chains. Someone seems determined to change downtown into a shopping mall, and they’re succeeding. Don’t we have enough cookie cutter places to shop, with remote corporate managers who don’t care one bit about our town? The only reason some of the older businesses survive is because they own their buildings. Otherwise there’d be two more boring, faceless chain stores in their places. Yuck!

      It’s sad that you prefer corporate chain stores to small, local businesses. However, we’re all entitled to our opinions.

      • He did not say that he preferred corporate chain stores, but someone must, because they seem to be multiplying.

      • Yeah, Bill’s Smoke Shop was a lovely setting and Gristede’s was so small as to not allow selection let alone movement. The nostalgic remembrance of downtown is clouded by too many years of cobwebs. Talk to Billy Mitchell about why they moved out from Colonial Green and the proximity of downtown. But you are putting words to my keyboard. I prefer local shops and do my limited consumption at such establishments. Yet, if you think you can turn the clock back to overpower Corporate America, you certainly are not an economist.

        • Virginia Gilbertie

          Not trying to turn the clock back, that is not what I said. I don’t see anything to be proud about now that “corporate banners” dominate Main Street. Yes, there was room for improvement, but not in the form of raising the rents so high that only large corporations could afford the space (talk to some of the veteran downtown merchants if you don’t believe me). Corporate America may have the loudest voice and the ear of congress, but it’s still small business that employs the most people in this country.

          I’m not nostalgic, nor am I being unrealistic. My opinion is that the change in this aspect of Westport life hasn’t been positive for the character of the town – it’s added a level of impersonalization that can’t be compensated for by bringing in a famous store. However, character is something that can’t be measured in profits and losses, so to many it’s just not important.

          • I am not arguing with you Virginia. I go to the YMCA every day to swim. Other than that, I am not a consumer so the shops downtown have little interest to me. However, that being said, I do take pride in how it looks and I like the new changes. And do you really want to compare Tiffany’s to Thompson Drugs or Restoration Hardward to Tip Schaeffer’s or the Gap to the old hardware store. I think you will find that downtown is now brighter and better. The takeover and “impersonalization” by Corporate America is not unique to Westport. Mom and Pop stores can not compete with the prices relating to the purchasing power of mega-global corporations. Also, many Americans like the conformity of a Talbots here identical to that in Texas. And I am not sure you can put a lid on rents where the Waldmans of this town merely want a return on their investments.

  17. Charlie parriott

    Great words Danny. I spent a lot of time in the Remakable. My grandfather was a literary agent, books have always opened many doors in our lives and continue to do their magic. CP

  18. “I know we won’t see a return of those shops to Main Street.”

    Why is this inevitable?

    • For the same reason there are no buggy whip retailers on Main Street; they are not economically viable, and that is why they disappeared in the first place.

      • John McCarthy

        So, why are other downtowns able to attract and retain independent retailers? Your buggy whip example is not appropriate.

        Supply/Demand of downtown retail space is largely the reason. I would be in favor of changing the zoning downtown to allow for more retail space downtown (and possibly a parking garage) if it enabled the price per square foot to drop to a level where it would make economic sense for independent retailers to rent space. But I would not be in favor of doing the same thing to allow us to “finally” get a Sharper Image or an Abercrombie.

        • So you want what you want irrespective of what the market demands. How special. If you want it, why don’t you pay for it? Downtown is the way it is because of a revealed set of preferences. The buggy whip example is perfectly appropriate, what happens elsewhere does not reflect the market for real estate in Westport. BTW there are independent retailers in Westport, just nor as many as you would like.

  19. Someone above beat me to it, but I agree that R. J. Julia in Madison is as close to the Remarkable that you’ll find within sane driving distance. And
    there’s a great sandwich shop attached.

  20. Remarkable was special not because of the cat, or the chairs or the pink building….it was remarkable because of Esther Kramer (and Esta Burrows, Migg’s mom, too). They were the soul of Westport’s literary community and the spirit they brought engaged more than one generation of Westport readers…..surrounding towns too. They had a spirit and enthusiasm, coupled with knowledge and caring, that you can not find in corporate workers whose loyalty isa predicated upon who signs their check .

    I take nothing away from the folks who try and make shopping at J. Crew or Starbucks a pleasure, but they are fighting a loosing battle. They could never have the connection that came naturally to those who populated Main street when I was growing up here. We could walk into the hardware store and pick up what was needed for the week and they’d write down what we took in a big ledger, billing our parents later. Then someone might say, “Oh, your folks just went into the market and want you to meet them there.”

    How different that was from the day I used a charge card in one of the chain stores on Main only to be asked to give my phone number..starting with the area code first…….

    Oh well, a different world with a kindness and intimacy we all long for is gone, but Westport’s still a heck of a town to live in.

  21. I think it was all of Main St that was special back then. Three grocery stores; two hardware stores; a five and dime. Remarkable is really being used as a reference to what use to exist on Main St.

  22. I think it’s a shame that the town got rid of so many buildings that were a part of the history of the town.What happened to naming something a historic treasure,and leaving the buildings where they stand?You’re distroying the towns history!I loved The Remarkable Book Store!

    • Princeton '82

      You certainly could have bought them up and restored them. I am not sure why everyone looks to the town for direction in restoration of the past. The market determines the changes and apparently, the Remarkable Book store did not have enough remarkable customers.

  23. I too was lucky enough to live in Westport, where we moved in the late ’70s, in the Remarkable era. As the daughter of a Main Street merchant in a small town in upstate Connecticut, I have a first-hand understanding of the difficulty of being a retailer in the current economic environment. My father’s 5&10 was also well-beloved, and 30+ years after its close, I can still bring a smile to the faces of the hometown folks by telling them that I am the “Fairway” girl (no, not the grocery, but the name of his store). However, customers vote with their feet and their wallets, and although many people treasure the charm and convenience of the local merchants, the sad reality is that for large purchases, particularly during the holiday shopping season where most retailers do a significant part of their annual business, many people choose to shop at the chains, malls, and online shopping sites.

    This year, local independents are threatened even more than previously by Amazon’s new Price Check App. And here, I’m going to pass the baton to another independent bookseller (unfortunately not at all near Westport), who addressed this latest challenge far better than I could:

    By now you have probably heard about Amazon’s latest attack on the small, independent brick-and-mortar stores that are the foundation of so many American communities. You’ve probably seen a headline here or there about their new ‘price checking’ app that allows customers to walk into any store, anywhere, and comparison shop by scanning an item’s bar code. It may not concern you that this predatory practice is only the latest in a long history of attempts by Amazon to singlehandedly destroy small town businesses. You may not care that this tactic implies small retailers are overcharging (we’re not) or that in many states Amazon still evades paying sales tax (which means you are, too). But we do hope that the $5 bounty they are offering customers tomorrow is enough to make you stand up and tell them you are NOT for sale!

    We need customers like you to show them there is still something valuable about walking down Main Street past stores owned by your friends and neighbors. We need you to recognize that for every $100 sale, a small business puts $68 back into their very own community. Jobs are created and shopping locally is better for the environment and it is part of what keeps your town unique and we could go on and on.

    But here’s what really makes small businesses better- the people. The actual living, breathing people who greet you when you walk in the door. Who ask how can they help you; who know your reading/dressing/living habits and can find that perfect book/sweater/lamp. The salesperson who knows your name, your husband’s name, heck, even your dog’s name. The barrista who starts your drink- large, skinny, half-caf capp- as you step through the door. The bookseller who sees you come in and hands you an advance copy (ie free read) they’ve been saving just for you.

    So, before you head to the mall, step into a chain, click on the Amazon site – think about your community – who buys the ads in the programs for Staples Players, donates to the local charities, sponsors the events that make Westport unique….and make your choices about what makes Westport the special place that it is. Not the pink paint on a building, but the intangible and unique essence of the local independent economy.

    • How dare Amazon give consumers what they want!
      Shopping on line is even better for the environment than shopping locally.
      Brick and mortar stores are rapidly becoming irrelevant for many products. Once the Sears catalogue was the only method for bringing consumer product offerings over long distances, now the Internet is more convenient and more user friendly. Times change. It seems the some of the same dynamics that move people to deride the Yellow pages as obsolete and a waste of resources are shaping the demand for retail products

  24. The Dude Abides

    I value your insight., MLJ. However, a good friend from Fairfield Beach manufacturers overalls and canvas bags in a shop in Norwalk. He has found an ally with Amazon.com and his once dead business is now thriving. Your point is well taken: shop at local merchants if you value their business as they do ours.

  25. Nina Sankovitch

    Barnes and Noble is now our local bookstore –employing local people, paying taxes, and providing a physical place to browse for books — so support Barnes and Noble, and turn away from the lure of Amazon — see this wonderful OpEd from today’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/opinion/amazons-jungle-logic.html?pagewanted=all&smid=fb-share

  26. Easy for you to say. For some people saving $5 on a book may make the difference beween buying it and not buying it. The editorial is elitist in its tone. The trend is clear, books are becoming obsolete and a waste of scarce resources. Keeping prices low is the only way to try and compete with digital sources of the same materials.

  27. All I know was it felt special to shop in Westport when there were special unique shops to explore “back when”. I miss the Remarkable book shop, the Ice Cream Parlor, Selective Eye and the Carousel Shop. They would be the first stops for the holiday shopping and celebrations. Now I rarely make my way down there. I can order from a catalog that shows up at my door every week from most of the shops that are there now. They were truly special places. I am grateful Oscars and the Pizza place are still there.
    But there is a “magic” missing from Main Street now.