Tag Archives: Esther Kramer

A Most Remarkable Website

Westporters of a certain age remember the Remarkable Book Shop.

The pink building at the Main Street/Parker Harding Plaza corner was as funky inside as it was colorful outside.

For over 30 years — from 1963 to 1995 — owner Esther Kramer and her band of bright, devoted and eclectic employees made the bookstore a home away from home for anyone looking for anything to read.

If they didn’t have what you needed, Esther and her crew found it for you.

And if you didn’t know what you wanted, they did.

A classic photo of a classic store.

Roaming the crooked aisles of “Remarkable” — and sitting in one of the over-stuffed chairs — was like wandering down a rabbit hole.

Now — nearly 30 years after it closed — there’s another Remarkable Book Shop rabbit hole to explore.

It’s there for everyone: those who remember the store fondly. Those who moved here too late, and know it only as Talbots (or more recently, Westport Local to Market). Even those too young to know what an independent bookstore is.

This Remarkable Book Shop rabbit hole is accessible to anyone with a browser. It’s a website that’s both a historical archive, and a labor of love.

Fittingly, it’s the product of a collaboration between the owner’s son, and a woman who never set foot in the place.

Mark Kramer is a writer (National Geographic, New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic), founding director of the Nieman program on narrative journalism at Harvard University, and a writing instructor at Smith College, Boston University and abroad.

Mark Kramer and his mother Esther. He inherited his love of writing from both parents.

Maya Reisz is a neighbor of Mark’s in Newton, Massachusetts. A professional organizer, she helped him sort through thousands of photos, letters and news clippings belonging to Esther and her husband Sidney Kramer, an attorney, literary agent and co-founder of Bantam Books, who died in 2014, a month before his 100th birthday.

For years, Mark had been impressed at the impact his mother’s store made.

“Every time ‘06880’ mentioned the Remarkable Book Shop, dozens of people commented affectionately,” he says.

“I’ve come to realize it represented human connection, in a world where connections have become more and more distant.

“She had a vibrant spirit. She was vivacious and effervescent,” he says. “And she created something that was like public art.”

As he and Maya sorted through stacks of photos and news clippings, she too grasped what Esther had done.

“I’m a storyteller,” Maya says. “I saw we had enough substance to tell that story, and bring back memories.”

She has the technical skills to make it happen.  For the past few months, she and Mark worked to bring the “Remembering the Remarkable Bookshop” website to life.

Together, they created a — well, I tried for a synonym. but there is none better — remarkable online archive.

There’s the back story (of course), plus photos, news clippings and artwork.

The painter of this downtown holiday scene is unknown.

But the fun comes — as it did in the store — by burrowing deep.

At the end of each “chapter” — “Esther Through Time,” shelves stocked with more than books, author signings, customers — there’s a link to the next.

Throughout the site, visitors can leave comments (and memories).

The Remarkable Book Shop hosted many noted authors for readings. Pictured here: Erica Jong.

The project was as important to Maya as it was to Mark. As she worked, she felt she got to know Esther and Sidney. She grew nostalgic for a place she never knew. She felt the responsibility — and pride — of producing something that will mean a lot, to a lot of people.

Esther and Sidney Kramer, on TV.

Including those who, like Maya, never set foot inside the Remarkable Book Shop.

And not just new Westporters.

While Mark was teaching recently in Bergen, Norway, the owner of a bookstore asked him where he shopped at home. He told her about his mother’s place — and the website. She said, “I want to see it!”

The Remarkable Book Shop is gone. It lives on now, happily, as a website.

But there are still physical reminders of the legendary store around town. Jane Green’s Bookcycle — a mobile free library — is painted pink, and proudly sports “The Remarkable Man” (the Edward Gorey-inspired dancing figure that hung for years on the front of the store).

The store — and the Remarkable Man.

That’s not the only place to see the famed mascot. The actual, real live (okay, wooden) Remarkable Man now lives inside Cold Fusion. He gazes happily from his new home, at his old one.

Which gave Mark another idea: How about a gathering — at Cold Fusion — for everyone who remembers the Remarkable Book Shop? Friends and former employees could have a very cool time.

Or who goes down its website rabbit hole, and wishes they did?

What a remarkable event that would be!

(Click here to enter the Remarkable Book Shop website. Happy “browsing”!)

(“06880” is your source for remarkable Westport history. Please click here to support this hyper-local blog.)

The Remarkable Bookcycle (and the Remarkable Man), outside the former book shop last year.


Friday Flashback #263

No bygone business has been mentioned more in “06880” than the Remarkable Book Shop.

The Main Street/Parker Harding corner store was a beloved, comfortable, meeting place. Whenever I need a reference point for a locally owned, customer-centric shop: Bingo!

But the Remarkable comes up in other ways too. There’s the Remarkable Bookcycle, a three-wheeled, mobile homage complete with the same pink color and logo.

There’s the Remarkable Theater, our downtown drive-in theater that takes its name directly — and fittingly — from that long-ago other entertainment option.

More recently, Cold Fusion Gelato — located opposite the former shop — hung the wooden “Remarkable Guy” inside, looking out on his old haunt.

And now Local to Market has opened on the book shop’s old site, offering food and crafts in a down-home way reminiscent of its predecessor.

But in all my references to the Remarkable Book Shop, I never knew that it was also part of a very popular children’s book.

The other day, alert “06880” reader Kerry Long spotted a Remarkable reference on Instagram. A user posted 2 images from Richard Scarry’s 1968 Random House classic, What Do People Do All Day?

There in the lower right corner — below drawings of a poet, artist and writer — was the Remarkable Book Shop.

A close-up shows that Scarry included the name of the proprietor: E. Kramer.

That would be Esther Kramer — the actual owner of the Westport store. (Regular “06880” readers know that the “Remarkable” name comes from “Kramer” spelled backward.)

So — decades later — the Remarkable Book Shop still lives. And not just on “06880,” but Instagram too.



Cold Fusion: The Remarkable Back Story

Cold Fusion opened Thursday. From the moment the new gelato place served its first scoop, it was packed.

It’s on Main Street near Avery Place, in the former Papyrus space next to Chase Bank.

Or, to put it another way: opposite the old Remarkable Book Shop.

The Remarkable Book Shop.

Relative newcomers know it as the long-shuttered Talbots (soon to be, remarkably, Local to Market, selling fresh produce, food and artisan craft items, all produced around here).

Cold Fusion owners (and longtime Westporters) Eric and Kelly Emmert know their history. As they planned their store, they knew they wanted to honor their long-ago neighbor.

For 34 years, an Edward Gorey-inspired dancing figure hung on the side of the Remarkable Book Shop.

Now — after all these years — he’s back.

With a different point of view. He’s inside Cold Fusion — occupying the spot he gazed out upon, for all those years.

The Remarkable Guy was stored at the former Westport Historical Society. More recently, Pam Barkentin has taken care of him. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

The Remarkable Book Shop was owned by Sidney and Esther Kramer. (The store’s perfect name includes “Kramer,” spelled backward.) Their children, Mark and Wendy, have loaned the iconic work of art to the Emmerts.

Esther made her store a Westport landmark. Shelves were filled with books on every topic imaginable. Cozy, overstuffed chairs (and a house cat named Heathcliffe) invited browsers to sit, read, linger and talk to each other long before “store experiences” were a thing.

Esther knew every customer’s name, from Paul Newman and writers to young children. She and her team of loyal, learned employees remembered everyone’s interests and tastes, and happily recommended the next good read.

Warm, friendly and funky, the pink store was a community gathering place from 1960 until 1994.

That’s the kind of feeling the Emmerts hope to recreate at Cold Fusion. Bringing the Remarkable Guy back is a great way to start.

Westport History Museum: A Remarkable Story

When the Remarkable Book Shop closed, Westporters mourned the loss of a quirky, comfy store that for decades epitomized Main Street.

When former owners Sidney and Esther Kramer gifted the Westport Historical Society the right to use the name — and their Edward Gorey-inspired logo — for its gift shop, Westporters rejoiced.

The Remarkable name lived again — and on Avery Place, just a few yards from the original store. Not everyone who shopped for books, maps and posters about Westport knew the significance of the Remarkable Gift Shop name, or the delightful logo, but that didn’t matter.

Those who did, smiled.

Remarkable guy at Westport Historical Society (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

But they — and the Kramer family — are not smiling now.

Besides renaming both the Historical Society itself (it’s become the Westport Museum for History & Culture), and the main exhibition room (the Sheffer Gallery now honors Daniel E. Offutt, III Charitable Trust), there’s a new name for the gift shop.

Gone is the Remarkable name. Gone is the Remarkable guy.

“It’s a makeover!” the website trumpets. “New space. new stock, new name!”

Are you ready for the great new name? Nothing says Westport like …

“The Shop at Wheeler House.”

PS: Neither Wendy Posner nor Mark Kramer received any notification from the Westport History Museum that their parents’ naming gift had been expunged.

Remarkable Bookcycle: The Back Story

Saturday night’s Pics of the Day was one of “06880”‘s most special — and most commented on.

The photo s– sent by a reader who did not identify him or herself — showed a 3-wheeler. In front of the pedals sat a wooden structure, filled with books.

It was painted pink — just like the old Remarkable Book Shop.

More remarkably, the front featured the beloved store’s dancing man logo.

And — in case you missed the other clues — a sign on the top said “The Remarkable Bookcycle.”

The photos were taken in and around Compo Beach.

Readers loved it. But no one knew the back story.

Now it can be told. And the tale comes courtesy of Jane Green: author of 19 novels, with over 10 million books in print in more than 25 languages. Besides being (duh) a huge book lover, she’s a longtime Westporter — and a very involved neighbor. She writes:

It started with George, although really, it started with the Remarkable Book Shop. Ever since I moved to Westport almost 18 years ago, everyone has told me that I would have loved the Remarkable Book Shop. Esther and Sidney Kramer were neighbors of ours, and I’ve harbored a secret fantasy of re-opening the bright pink bookshop for years.

Which brings me to George: a cargo tricycle we bought from neighbors of ours at the beach about 12 years ago. It seemed like a great idea at the time, a way to transport picnics and children back and forth to the beach, but those children are now teenagers, and George has languished in our garage for years.

More recently, I found myself obsessed with Little Free Libraries. The Little Free Library is a non-profit organization founded in the 1980’s to encourage people to read, and to bring communities together. Usually, people build them at the end of their driveways, giving away free books, bringing strangers together, chatting about books.

As a novelist who created the Facebook group Westport Front Porch for exactly that reason — to bring a sense of community back — and as an avid reader, I had always wanted a little free library. Also, my house is threatening to topple over with the piles of books everywhere. But I live on a small private street, and suspected my neighbors might not be so happy with an influx of readers coming over.

A mobile Little Free Library suddenly seemed an excellent idea, one that could travel around the beach and bring a bit of happy nostalgia to our town, for who doesn’t feel good when they remember the Remarkable Book Shop? I found a wonderful new Staples graduate, Ryan Peterson, to rebuild George and transform him into the bookshop. I downloaded pictures of the store for him, and with my husband Ian Warburg, who grew up here and has so many happy memories of the bookstore, designed the cart as a double-sided library where people can take home free books.

Jane Green stocks the Remarkable Bookcycle library …

I was ready to paint the sign myself, but realized that Miggs Burroughs would do a much better job. I sent him an email asking for his help with a secret project, with no idea that his mother, Esta Burroughs, worked at the book shop from the day it opened until the day it closed. (How remarkable is that?!) Miggs was thrilled, and painted both the sign and the instantly recognizable dancing man.

We have loved parking the Remarkable Bookcycle (pronounced bicycle!) by the beach this weekend, and seeing the smiles on people’s faces. At some point soon, we’ll have a website set up with news of how to donate books. In the meantime, look for the Remarkable Bookcycle around Compo, raise your glasses to the spirits of Sidney and Esther Kramer and Esta Burroughs, and don’t forget to stroke Heathcliff the cat while you’re picking out your book. Yes, there’s even a Heathcliff the cat tucked in amongst the books in the Remarkable Bookcycle!

… and takes an inaugural ride, along Compo Beach Road.

Remembering Sidney Kramer

Sidney Kramer would have been 100 years old on January 21.

He didn’t make it. He died earlier today, 64 years after moving to Westport.

But that’s one of the few things he did not accomplish in a long, productive and well-lived life.

Sidney Kramer

Sidney Kramer

Sidney Kramer was a major player in the publishing world. An attorney, literary agent and co-founder of Bantam Books — the original paperback house, founded during World War II when newsprint was scarce — he was better known locally as the owner of The Remarkable Bookshop.

For more than 30 years the pink building on the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza was beloved for its floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with new releases, poetry, cookbooks, obscure volumes and funky gifts; its cozy rooms, well-worn couches and sloping floors, and the encyclopedic knowledge of everyone who worked there.

Sidney’s wife Esther managed the store. She died in April 2011, at 93.

Remarkable made national headlines in 1978 when it refused to sell Richard Nixon’s biography because — in Kramer’s words — “we thought he was a rascal.” The store owner noted that it was not a freedom of speech issue. He even walked patrons down the street to Klein’s, which sold the book.

In 2001 — in recognition of the service Remarkable Book Shop provided — Sidney and Esther Kramer received Westport’s Arts Award.

The much-loved Remarkable Book Shop

The much-loved Remarkable Book Shop

But Remarkable — whose perfect name, serendipitously, includes “Kramer” spelled backwards — was not Sidney Kramer’s major contribution to Westport.

In 1981 he helped found Save Westport Now. Originally organized to prevent an enormous office building from replacing a century-old Victorian house on Gorham Island — diagonally across the parking lot from Remarkable —  Save Westport Now soon evolved into a 3rd political party.

It lost the Gorham Island war. But it won a battle along the way: The green-tinted office was originally planned to be much higher than it is now.

For the next 3 decades, Kramer and other activists monitored the Planning and Zoning Commission. They were particularly involved in issues like parking and the height of new buildings.

Save Westport Now said:

Mr. Kramer was never reticent in voicing his opinions about the manner in which over-reaching development would damage the character of his town. His analyses were not only respected, but often resulted in better outcomes. Although he relied on the members of his organization to help fulfill the SWN mission it was he, well into his 90s, who stood at Town Hall and spoke. And we all listened, learned and benefited.

Save Westport Now

Kramer was born in the Bronx in 1915. His parents emigrated to the US from Vilna and Minsk, in the 1890s. After graduating from NYU and Brooklyn Law School, Kramer served as counsel, accountant and eventually part owner of Penguin Books.

After Bantam he worked with other publishing companies, and was president of New American Library. In 1961 he founded Mews Books Ltd., a literary agency representing authors like Richard Scarry and Hardie Gramatky.

Sidney Kramer is survived by his son Mark of Newton, Massachusetts, the founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University and the author of many works of narrative non-fiction; his daughter Wendy Posner of Chicago; 4 grandchildren — and a very grateful Westport.

A memorial service is set for Saturday, January 24 (11:30 a.m., Westport Library). It’s 3 days after what would have been his 100th birthday.



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.

From Busytown To Downtown

“06880” has been buzzing recently with news and comments about a variety of Westport connections in books, movies, plays and TV shows.

A Westport Historical Society exhibit opening January 29 looks at Our Town in TV and films in the 1950s, through the eyes of writers who lived and worked here.

Now comes this, from alert “06880” reader Larry Perlstein:

This may be common knowledge, but I just noticed that on the inside cover of Richard Scarry’s “What Do People Do All Day?” is a picture of downtown “Busytown.” There in all its glory is the Remarkable Bookshop — with “E. Kramer, Prop.”

The Remarkable Bookshop -- "E. Kramer, Prop." -- is in the lower right corner.

If you’ve just fallen off a turnip truck — or moved to Westport yesterday, or never read “06880” before — you should know that the Remarkable Book Shop was for decades a downtown icon . It was in pink building on the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza (today it’s Talbots).

(Today it’s also become a flashpoint for “06880” commenters. Some lament its demise, calling it a symbol of the loss of mom-and-pop shops. Others say, “Get over it. That’s the way the world works.”)

Oh, yeah: Remarkable was owned by “E. Kramer.” (The name of the store is a play on Esther’s last name, spelled backwards.)

Larry asks: “Is this well known? Does anyone know the connection between Scarry and Westport? I can’t find anything on the Wiki.”

I can’t answer that. But I’m sure “06880”‘s remarkable readers can.

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.

Memorials, Donations Set For Mollie Donovan, Esther Kramer, Rich Rollins

Westporters have a variety of ways of honoring the lives of 3 local icons, all of whom died this month.

Mollie Donovan:  This Sunday (May 1, 11 a.m.to 1 p.m.) the public is invited to a celebration of life at the Westport Historical Society.

Memorial contributions may be made to her favorite causes:

  • Westport Historical Society, 25 Avery Place, Westport, Connecticut 06880
  •  The Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection, c/o Nancy Harris, Westport Public Schools, 110 Myrtle Avenue, Westport, Connecticut 06880
  • The Douglas Donovan Scholarship Fund, c/o Staples Tuition Grants, PO Box 5159, Westport, Connecticut 06881-5159.

Esther Kramer:  A memorial celebration of her life will be held at the Unitarian Church, 10 Lyons Plains Road, on Saturday, May 7 (2:30-4:30 p.m.).  The public is invited.

Rich Rollins:  Donations in his memory may be made to the Salvation Army, and sent to: 30 Elm St., Bridgeport, CT 06604.