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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.)