Tag Archives: Remarkable Book Shop

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.

 

 

Remarkable Downtown Scene

Really old Westporters remember the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza as the site of a sea captain’s house-turned-map store.

Relatively old Westporters know it as the Remarkable Book Shop.

Newbies called it Talbots.

Now it’s — who knows what?

Remarkable Book Shop 2014

The iconic building that long symbolized downtown Westport is being transformed once again.

I had to use a little filter to keep it pink.

 

Looking Back Fondly On…?

From time to time, to the delight of some readers — and the annoyance of others — “06880” waxes rapturously about long-gone relics from Westport’s past.

The Remarkable Book Shop. Allen’s Clam House. Famous Artists School.

If you’ve read this blog for more than a week — even if you moved here this winter — you probably know those names.

Now it’s time to turn the tables.

Alert (and creative) “06880” reader Erik Marcus suggests looking ahead and back, simultaneously. How about crowdsourcing current Westport stores, restaurants and institutions that — 30, 40 or 50 years from now — would deserve as much respect, if they are no longer around?

To make it interesting — and because we’ve given plenty of props already to places like Westport Pizzeria and Oscar’s — let’s limit it to relative newcomers. In other words, you can only mention something that did not exist here before 2000.

Hit “Comments” to add your favorite future nostalgia-inducers. Add a few details. And please, use your full, real name.

Will Bartaco and the west bank of the Saugatuck River still be hopping in 2054? Or will it be a long-ago memory? (Photo by Anne Hardy)

Will Bartaco and the west bank of the Saugatuck River still be hopping in 2054? Or will it be a long-ago memory? (Photo by Anne Hardy)

I Resolve…

Happy New Year!

In the spirit of the season, “06880” offers up a few resolutions.

In 2014, I promise to…

Run only a few photos of selfish, entitled drivers taking up 3 spaces, parking almost on the jetty at Compo Beach, and using the sidewalk in front of Silver’s to enter and exit the Post Road. And I will make snarky comments about them only if they really, truly deserve it.

You won't see more than 20 or 30 of this type of photo in 2014!

You won’t see more than 20 or 30 of this type of photo in 2014!

Try my best to find a story that highlights how great it is that a family with no ties to Westport buys a handsome, well-maintained, 200-year-old home; promises the owner to keep it and love it; then levels it and constructs a 12,000-square foot behemoth filled with rooms that don’t even have names, after chopping down more trees than George Washington ever dreamed of. I know you guys are out there — I can’t wait to tell your inspiring tales!

A blight on the neighborhood. Good to see it go!

A blight on the neighborhood. Good to see it go!

Limit my trips down memory lane. After all, how many times can I mention the Remarkable Book Shop, Clam Box, and a time shrouded in nostalgia when a 5-year-old could walk from home all the way downtown, spend a day shooting baskets (or billiards) at the Y, then wander along Main Street while shopkeepers came outside, greeted him by name, fed and clothed him, and put the bill on the back of a paper bag for the parents to settle, hey, whenever they wanted.

Good riddance!

Good riddance!

Like any New Year’s resolutions, I’ll do my best to stick to these as long as I can. I figure at least through Saturday.

(Have your own resolutions? Click “Comments” to share — and please, use your full name!)

Esta Burroughs: 100 Years Young

Esta Freedman’s mother left Poland for Ellis Island at 17.  Esta’s father worked in the gold mines of South Africa as a teenager.  He stowed away on a US-bound ship, but gambled away his nest egg before it docked.

Esta was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1913. She and her 4 siblings shared a room. At 17, she left home for New York.

Esta Freedman at 17.

Esta Freedman at 17.

A chance meeting in the subway led to a meeting with Bernie Burroughs, an illustrator.  They hit it off.  Soon they eloped.  They lived in Greenwich Village, then Neptune, N.J.  In 1946 their son Miggs was born.

Bernie’s artist friends were moving to Connecticut.   The Burroughses followed:  to Stamford in 1948, then Westport in 1950 when their 2nd son Tracy was born.

Bernie and Esta quickly joined the local artists and writers’ circle, making friends with the likes of Howard Munce, Tracy Sugarman, Max Shulman, Evan Hunter, John G. Fuller and their families.

Bernie played poker; Esta, bridge.  They entertained often, and went to parties.  At some, couples put car keys in a bowl, and drove home with the owner of whichever set they pulled out.  Esta says she and Bernie always left before that happened.

She wrote articles for local newsletters.  Then she met Sidney and Esther Kramer.   They were opening a bookstore, called Remarkable — the name included “Kramer” spelled backwards — and asked her to join them.

The Remarkable Book Shop. (Photo by Dave Matlow)

The Remarkable Book Shop. (Photo by Dave Matlow)

Esta stayed in the iconic pink building on Main Street — working in the warren of rooms, loving the tall stacks of books, sloping floors and comfy chairs — until the day it closed.

She also partnered with Pat Fay — running tag sales as “Those 2 Girls” — but her Remarkable work really defined Esta Burroughs for generations of Westporters.

She waited on Paul Newman, Liz Taylor, Bette Davis, Keir Dullea, Christopher Plummer and Patty Hearst.  She also massaged the egos of many local authors, who visited constantly to check on sales of their books.

An avid reader, Esta enjoyed meeting writers.  The opportunity to read any title was a great perk — and a huge advantage for customers.  They asked countless questions about books.  She answered them all.

After Remarkable closed, Esta worked at the Save the Children Gift Shop.  Until recently she volunteered at the Westport Historical Society.

Today, Esta Burroughs turns 100.  The Remarkable Book Shop is long gone.  So are Paul Newman, Bette Davis — and key parties.

But Esta remembers them all, quite clearly.  Those memories are all part of her 6 decades in Westport — and her much-loved, seldom-acknowledged contributions to our town.

Happy Birthday, Esta Burroughs!

Happy Birthday, Esta Burroughs! (Photo by Miggs Burroughs)

(More Burroughs news! Tomorrow — Saturday, March 16, 2 p.m. — Esta’s son Miggs will sign copies of his book, The What If? Book of Questions — at Barnes & Noble. It’s a benefit for the Coleytown Middle School Book Fair.)

Gault Barns Make History

In its 3 decades of existence, Remarkable Book Shop made a remarkable impact on Westport.

As Mitchells celebrates its 55th anniversary, we marvel that the 4th generation of family members waits in the wings.

But those 2 town institutions have the life spans of fruit flies, compared to Gault.

Westport’s oldest family-owned  business is 150 years young this year.

You want a historical reference? It was founded two years before Abraham Lincoln won his battle to pass the 13th Amendment. You know — that ancient event Steven Spielberg is about to win multiple Oscars for.

Gault logoOn Thursday, the company will kick off a year-long anniversary celebration. They’ll find many ways to honor their heritage — moving from a one-horse and wagon hauling enterprise, through freight hauling, grain threshing, seed supplies and lumber to coal, masonry supplies, home heating oil, and now biofuel, propane, electricity and standby generators — along with their century and a half of commitment to Westport.

While the details of the “150 Years of Community” celebration are hush-hush, one item is significant. The press event will be held at the Gault family’s historic Compo Road South barn.

That’s where the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation will announce that the Gault Barn — actually 3 barns, built from 1890 to 1913 — will be added to the State Register of Historic Places.

You’ve driven past the barns a jazillion times — they’re on the right, a half mile or so from the Post Road as you head to the beach.

The Gault Barns today. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation)

The Gault Barns today. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation)

But you may not know — I sure didn’t — that they are historic structures. Their timber frame construction reflects the building traditions of American farming.

A Connecticut Trust researcher says, “the Gault family showed uncommon ingenuity by integrating a variety of materials from their lines of business, including brick and stone masonry, into the barns to create a truly unique complex.”

The barns have endured since the time when wagons gave way to automobiles. That was the early 20th century — and the Gault company had already been around as long as Mario’s has now been a Westport fixture.

Beef steers in front of the Gault barn, winter of 1930.

Beef steers by the Gault barn, winter of 1930.

While many Westport barns have, um, bought the farm, the Gault family used theirs in evolving ways — to “support and take advantage of changes in the community over time, from dairy farming to lumber and feed grain, to coal and home heating delivery.”

The Gault barns are prized by historians and curators for their architectural bones and historical narrative. They’ve been lovingly preserved and maintained.

In fact, says the Connecticut Trust, they’re among the Top 10 historically significant barns in the state.

Big deal. The Gault family — and their company — have been #1 in service to Westport for decades longer than those barns have even existed.

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.

Remarkable Graffiti

Sometime last night, this graffiti appeared on the side of the Talbots Petites store by the Parker Harding entrance:

But it was hardly vandalism.  In Westport, graffiti is elegant — and historic.

Featuring a replica of the dude who appeared on the logo of the Remarkable Book Shop, it honors Esther Kramer — the founder and longtime owner of the long-cherished store.  She died earlier this month, at 93.

From 1962 to 1994, the Remarkable Book Shop occupied a former private home at the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding.

Painted pink, it was certainly distinctive.  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 Remarkable Book Shop, back in the day. Note the dude on the logo next to the large window.

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.

Last night, someone remembered.  And made his or her mark in a way Esther no doubt would have loved.

(Fun fact:  “Remarkable” included Esther’s last name, Kramer, spelled backward.  A commemoration of her life will be held Saturday, May 7, at 2 p.m. at the Westport Library.)