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.
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.
Two legendary Westporters will be honored at memorial services soon.
Sidney Kramer — the founder of both Save Westport Now (SWN) and Remarkable Book Shop — died in December, 1 month shy of his 100th birthday. The public is invited to celebrate his many contributions to Westport this Saturday (January 24, 11:30 a.m., Westport Library McManus room). Afterwards, friends and relatives will gather at the Westport Woman’s Club (44 Imperial Avenue), to chat and reminisce.
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 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
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.
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.
In response to recent “06880” posts — by 2 Planning & Zoning commissioners, and the Coalition for Westport — regarding the denial of senior housing on town owned property Save Westport Now adds its voice. Chairman Sidney Kramer says:
We would like provide clarity to the decision and offer high praise to all those who have, and will, continue to work diligently to address this complicated and challenging issue. In addition, we compliment the current P&Z Commissioners, who are duly elected representatives of both the Democrat and Republican parties, for their thoughtful deliberation of this matter.
We believe that the Commission’s near-unanimous decision to reject this text amendment was correct. It needed to be rejected—not because of political pressure or bias, but because the amendment itself was deeply and unacceptably flawed and would have created far more problems than it solved, all at the expense of Westport taxpayers.
Part of the Baron’s South property, where a senior housing facility was proposed.
As the town moves toward an acceptable solution, we must keep in mind some of the problems with the denied amendment (see below), many of which have gotten lost in the heat of the discussion. These are things every Westport resident — and most especially our seniors — should know:
The Amendment would have required developers to set aside ONLY 20% (or just 29 units) as “affordable”—whereas current state law requires that 30% be set aside and our P&Z has already determined that 60% is the appropriate number to justify utilizing town land for this purpose;
If passed, the town would basically have been subsidizing housing for the well-to-do, since the income tests for the non-affordable units were very high;
The amendment would have put the town further behind in terms of meeting the state minimum for affordable housing dictated by Connecticut State Statute 8-30G, since it would have increased the total number of units in town without a corresponding 30% increase of affordable units. That, in turn, would allow developers of other affordable housing projects to override existing zoning regulations anywhere in town, given that we would no longer have the benefits of a moratorium on the state-mandated minimum;
The amendment would have allowed a private developer to acquire a valuable town asset (8+ acres of prime real estate with an estimated value of $10,000,000) for a mere $1,000,000 — less than the average cost of many residential building lots;
The Amendment would have allowed for a 99-year lease that contained liberal assignment clauses that the town would not fully control;
The additional amenities being offered by the developer were minimal (a therapy pool not the same as a full-sized town pool) and could not make up for the loss of this valuable asset or the increased problems this project would create in terms of the state mandate on affordable housing;
The amendment would have exempted the entire project (as opposed to just the 29 affordable units) from the current 10% town-wide cap on multi-family dwellings. With 13 sites eligible for the same treatment, we could have easily ended up with significantly greater density, traffic and stresses on our town services (fire, police, emergency, and recreation); and
Although the amendment purported to cover 13 sites, it was primarily targeted for Baron’s South (potentially making it illegal “spot zoning”), with insufficient thought given to its impact on the other eligible sites in town.
Finally, we note that portraying Westport as a place with no senior housing is inaccurate. One only needs to look at Whitney Glen, where the owners tried to get the town to lower the age requirement from 65 to 55 due to the fact that there are too many vacant units and not enough seniors applying.
The Whitney Glen condominiums behind Compo Shopping Center are age-restricted.
We appreciate that this recent decision will delay things. But in the context of Westport’s more than 200-year history and with such valuable resources in play (for decades to come!), the 6 years spent on this matter is a drop in the bucket. We honor those who came before us, and those who will follow, by taking the long view and acting with great care in managing our town’s scarce and precious resources. Progress has already been made, and the investments of time and effort to date have not been for naught. If we can solve the problems outlined above, we can find a solution that works for all of Westport.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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