A Remarkable Real Estate Sale

When Walter Pitkin turned a 1700’s-era sea captain’s house on Main Street into a map and book store, it thrived.

But he sold it to a man who, Sidney Kramer said, “slapped your hand if you picked up a book.” Within a couple of years, business turned sour.

So in the early 1960s, when Sidney’s wife Esther looked to open a bookstore, the stars were aligned. The Kramers bought the property — on the corner of Parker Harding Plaza — and opened the Remarkable Book Shop.

“Remarkable” — the name not only described the store, but contained the name “Kramer” spelled backward — was an instant success.

The low ceilings and sloping wood floors gave it a funky charm. Esther and her band of loyal, learned employees — women like Esta Burroughs, Rita Engelbardt and Wendy Newton — stocked the shelves with an eclectic collection of bestsellers, classics, hard-to-find and one-of-a-kind releases, art and photography books, poetry, political manifestos, and nearly everything else.

They added funky gifts and posters. They painted the exterior a memorable shade of pink.

Large, comfy chairs invited lounging. When customers tore pages out of cookbooks, Esther put up a pad and pencil and invited people to copy recipes.

Eventually, Remarkable took over the space next door — Record Hunter. The Kramers — Sid was an attorney, literary agent and co-founder of Bantam Books — added space underneath, renting first to a barber, then a succession of gift shops.

The setup of the book store — with its warren of small rooms — made it warm and welcoming. But Sid calls the layout “a pain in the ass. We could never see our customers.”

Because the Kramers owned the building, they succeeded in the always-difficult book world. “If we had to pay rent, we probably wouldn’t have made it,” Sid — now 98, and with a razor-sharp memory — says.

This sign -- immortalizing the longtime owner -- was created by Westport artist Miggs Burroughs. His mother Esta was Esther's longtime second-in-command.

This sign — immortalizing the longtime owner, and incorporating the store’s whimsical mascot — was created by Westport artist Miggs Burroughs. His mother Esta was Esther’s longtime second-in-command.

But the arrival of Barnes & Noble marked the beginning of the end. The discount megastore siphoned off enough customers to force the Kramers to close. Paul Newman called, begging them to reconsider, but — after 34 years — the decision stood.

Nearly 20 years ago Talbots took over — a watershed moment in the Main Street march from mom-and-pop shops to chains.

Two years ago, Esther Kramer died. She was 93 years old.

Last year, Talbots consolidated its wares into the old Record Hunter wing.

Earlier this month, the Kramer family sold the 3,500-square foot building. It fetched $4.2 million.

That’s a lot of money.

But for Westporters of a certain age — who grew up in a certain era — the memories of Remarkable Book Shop are worth much, more more.

18 responses to “A Remarkable Real Estate Sale

  1. U. Zooelly N. Trouble

    The Kramers had a strategy for competing against the “Big Box” bookstores before there even were big box bookstores. A Remarkable story!

  2. What an absolutely perfect store the Remarkable Book Shop was. I remember spending too many hours looking through the shelves to find just the right book. We all know that times change, but I sure do miss the past.

  3. Joyce Barnhart

    Our family has many fond memories of “The Remarkable”. It was the first place I would shop for gifts for children. (The Fairfield County Youth Museum, aka EarthPlace, was the second.) My son learned to juggle from a kit sold at The Remarkable and my daughter’s affection for Winnie the Pooh started there. And we always sought out one of the cats for a pet and a purr. The gift shop at the Westport Historical Society was given permission to use the name, and it’s a fun place to find unusual and special gifts, too.

  4. Sven Davidson

    Remarkable was a treasure trove of fun stuff – in addition to the books: the shelves were chock-a-block with things like rubber chickens and chattering teeth. A great source of Christmas stocking stuffers. And the corner at the back with all the stuffed animals was a wonderful place for fathers of young children to find presents.

    It’s too bad that, when they took over, Talbot’s didn’t leave a small patch of pink paint on the exterior as a tribute to a local legend.

  5. Boy, the old photo of the interior — floor to ceiling wonders. I had forgotten how authentic it truly was. Too bad all the new chains seem so sanitized. It wasn’t just books at Remarkable, but a whole lot of other stuff, magic maybe. We could get lost in there after school and the Y. Those days sure aren’t coming back.

  6. How many wonderful hours I spent in that store …

  7. to 06880,
    40 years ago we came off the Merritt Parkway at exit 42 from Riverdale and saw the Remarkable Book Store. It was love at first sight.

    How could you not want to move here with a beautiful pink book store. Our children grew up going to Remarkable and it was remarkable. Fairyland for most of us. Still miss it!

  8. That era was when Main Street was really Westport’s Main Street. Miss it still! Sally Palmer

  9. The sweetly perfumed inviting odor coming from the shelves where varieties of colored sealing wax was on sale left an indelible impression of a scent that fifty years later I can totally recall. Isn’t that TRUELY REMARKABLE!

  10. Esther and Sidney bequeathed the name and iconic sign from the Remarkable to the Westport Historical Society for its Gift Shop…it’s still the place to go for Westport-themed gifts, clothing, and especially books (http://westporthistory.org/shop/) so the ‘spirit’ of the Remarkable Book Shop lives on…

  11. Judi Simonetti

    I love the photo inside the store. What a wonderful flashback!! Great story and, again Dan, I love that you included a photo inside the store. It really brought back some wonderful memories!

  12. Dick Lowenstein

    Walter Pitkin , whose name begins this post, was an interesting person in his own right, and was one of the other co-founders of Bantam Books.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_B._Pitkin,_Jr.

  13. Hi Dan,
    I read your story on the Remarkable Book Store, and wanted to share a store experience with you. I, as many others, had enjoyed the eclectic mix of books and things available at the store over the years – for one thing it was my go-to place for really well made rubber chickens that I would use in my juggling act, and the quality of their “Groucho nose and glasses” rated second to none…

    In 1990, I had created a product used for sweeping bed sheets, a novel solution that was both fun and practical (it still is – http://www.bedbrush.com). I approached the Remarkable people, and proposed the idea of a window display for the brush (they were already selling them there at the time). They liked the idea, and for a month they let me display the Bed Brush in their window (with an animated display)… it was really cool! If I remember right, it generated a lot of interest and a pretty good amount of sales!

    I’ve attached a photo of the window for you.

    All the best,
    Dave Miles

  14. So many great memories! For a second I was transported back to the warren of magical rooms. I remember, as a kid, looking at the piles of stuffed animals on the window seat and suddenly some of them were moving… It was the cat nestled in with them whose breathing was making them go up and down.

  15. I loved REMARKABLE; the Kramer family, Esta…and I also remember Polly Preyer and Ben.

  16. Hi Dan,
    Read your story on the Remarkable Book Store, and wanted to share a store experience with you. I, as many others, had enjoyed the eclectic mix of books and things available at the store over the years – for one thing it was my go-to place for really well made rubber chickens that I would use in my juggling act, and the quality of their “Groucho nose and glasses” rated second to none…

    In 1990, I had created a product used for sweeping bed sheets, a novel solution that was both fun and practical (still is – bedbrush.com). I approached the Remarkable people, and proposed the idea of a window display for the brush (they were already selling them there at the time). They liked the idea, and for a month they let me display the Bed Brush in their window (with an animated display)… it was really cool! If I remember right, it generated a lot of interest and a pretty good amount of sales!

  17. never a bad day in that old store