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Rodgers Book Barn: A Community Shop With A Long Shelf Life

Owner Maureen Rodgers poses next to the woodstove.

By Amy Krzanik

“Old books and CDs” read the bookmarks and business cards used to advertise Rodgers Book Barn in Hillsdale, N.Y. And while that claim may technically be true — the barn-turned-bookshop does indeed offer those items —  the store’s dedicated fanbase knows this to be an obvious understatement. Even a first-time visitor to its tucked-away locale understands it to be much more: a book lover’s oasis, a neighborhood touchstone, a shelter from the storm.

The credit for this goes to owner Maureen Rodgers, who has manned the counter here for more than 40 years. Originally from England, Rodgers moved to New York City in the 1960s, where she worked selling hard-to-find textbooks to colleges. She and her ex-husband eventually moved to Hillsdale, where they purchased the “falling-down house and barn” and cleared the latter of its hay to create the two-story shop in 1972.

Rodgers points to the double supports on the first-floor’s ceiling. “A man came into the building one day and said ‘hay is a lot lighter than books’ and informed me that I needed more support to keep the second floor from buckling under the weight of all those books,” she says, laughing. “I told him, ‘you’ve got the job!’”

At first open only during the summer, the Book Barn is now a year-round business serving locals, seasonal vacationers and collectors who drive up from the city. The store is a must-stop for residents entertaining houseguests and some refer to the trip as more of a pilgrimage than a visit. There’s a colorful, light-filled children’s section upstairs that keeps even the youngest patrons entertained for hours.

The brightly painted children’s section.

In the summertime, the barn doors are thrown open, and visitors can enjoy picnics in the yard. The “free books” cart is out and the sale shed is busy. During the cooler seasons, a cast-iron woodstove keeps the place cozy, and upstairs, free coffee, tea and hot chocolate are available to keep browsers toasty (go ahead and have one, you’ll probably be here for a while).

In any season, it’s easy to lose yourself in the stacks. Seemingly around every corner (and there are lots of corners; bookshelves are good for that) is a comfy chair where you can steal some alone time with your finds. Rugs, oriental and otherwise, line the floors, stained glass lamps hang from the ceilings, and art — posters, prints and assorted knickknacks — are everywhere.

Beau the cat greets guests to the “free” table.

The store’s more than 50,000 books are carefully chosen and diligently arranged by Rodgers — this is no glorified tag sale. Unlike some second-hand shops that route their best stuff straight to their online store, here you’re getting all of what Rodgers has chosen from book and estate sales, and during private house calls. The merchandise is in great condition and the prices are a steal. (I got seven books for $19.) 

Although she buys selectively at this point — the barn is pretty full — Rodgers is always looking for good classics in nice editions, as well as art books and fiction, of which she is a huge fan. Warm and knowledgeable, Rodgers is ready to chat about books or to give reading recommendations, without aiming for the hard sell.

She says her first 30 years working as a bookseller was pretty much the same, until the internet changed the nature of the book trade steadily and completely during the last 20 years. Owing to the fact that there are no big box bookstores in the area, she says, shops like The Chatham Bookstore, Oblong Books in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., and The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass. have been allowed to thrive, and even to allow used stores like hers to stay in business.

“We’ve all been hit by the internet, but the stores around here are still doing well. I survived because I don’t pay rent,” she says.

Thank god for that.

Rodgers Book Barn
467 Rodman Road, Hillsdale, N.Y. 
(518) 325-3610
November—March: Fri—Sun 11 a.m.—5 p.m.
April—October: Thurs—Mon 11 a.m.—5 p.m.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 11/17/15 at 10:43 AM • Permalink

Crime In The Gilded Age? Grislier Than You Might Expect

By Jamie Larson

Murder and mayhem may not be the first two words that come to mind when you think of our lovely Berkshires, but during the region’s “Gilded Age” life was, at times, a bit less civil than we’ve come to know it. From the 1870s to the early 1900s the region saw booming industry and vacationing high society mix with folks with a frontier mentality and a wild country still fraught with perils. These uniquely exciting times bred uniquely intriguing crimes.

Gilded Age Murder and Mayhem in the Berkshires, a new book by experienced regional crime reporter and frequent history writer Andrew K. Amelinckx, highlights some of the most intriguing crimes from the era. The tight and supremely readable collection of short stories is a captivating and dramatic read but it also serves as a meaningful addition to our local history cannon. One of the things Amelinckx says he enjoys about journalism and history is unearthing details about our shared history that deserve to be remembered.

Murder and Mayhem Teddy crash

President Theodore Roosevelt’s carriage after it was hit by a speeding trolley car near Pittsfield, Mass., on Sept. 3, 1902. The accident resulted in the death of William “Big Bill” Craig, the first Secret Service agent to be killed protecting a president, and a jail sentence for the trolley driver.

“In the Gilded Age, the Berkshires was a really anomalous place. It was a playground for the super rich from New York but still considered backwater by most of New England,” says Amelinckx, noting that the culture clash is perhaps most pronounced in the book’s first story, “The Gentleman Burglar,” about a gang that preyed on the super rich.

“There were also a lot of ax murders,” the author adds.

Some tales may be familiar to locals, such as the incident in which President Teddy Roosevelt’s carriage was hit by an unwieldy trolley car outside Pittsfield, resulting in the death of the first Secret Service agent killed in the line of duty. Others, like “The Thanksgiving Day Double Murder,” are more obscure, and more emotionally impactful than titillating. In the Thanksgiving case, an African-American man was sentenced and executed on thin evidence. While on death row, he wrote a book of his own and recounts the struggles and persecution blacks living in the Berkshires endured at the time.

Fadlo Mallak, the Syrian-born millworker who shot up a trolley car near Adams, Mass. in 1911, killing three and wounding five.

“The justice system worked much more swiftly and more violently,” says Amelinckx, who pored through innumerable old records and newspaper clippings while researching the book. “In none of these stories was there a lynching but in three or four articles, about different stories, the reporters said that had the police not gotten there, there would have been.”

Amelinckx says his work as a modern crime reporter informed the way he approached investigating these stories from those long-ago days. Over the past decade he’s written countless crime and court stories for the Berkshire Eagle and The Register Star in Columbia County. With his first book behind him, he now has ideas for another book on the historical crimes of the Hudson Valley, as well as a true-crime story about the recent Berkshire triple murder trial involving the disturbing looking Caius Veiovis, which Amelinckx covered at length for the Eagle.

The author. Photo by Rob Ragani.

“[Crime reporting] has certainly colored my perception, but not in a bad way,” Amelinckx says of the job he fell into almost by accident after receiving an MFA. “You get to see the worst and best of humanity.”

Amelinckx will be featured at book reading and signing events to celebrate the release of Gilded Age Murder and Mayhem in the Berkshires. The next will be at Magpie Bookshop in his hometown of Catskill, N.Y. on Saturday, Oct. 31 at 5 p.m.

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 10/20/15 at 10:47 AM • Permalink

Spencertown Festival Of Books Turns The Page On Ten Years

David Highfill, Kimberly Rawson and Academy Board President Nick van Alstine at last year’s preview party.

By Amy Krzanik

Not just another used book sale, the Spencertown Festival of Books spans four days (September 4-7) and features award-winning and bestselling authors of fiction, history, memoir, food tomes, and young adult novels. It’s also a fine way to meet your neighbors – many of the featured speakers live right here in our area.

The festival, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, began as a way to raise funds for the Spencertown Academy Arts Center’s community arts programs but has grown into a hotly anticipated event for all ages.

Those who want first dibs on the selection of more than 10,000 books will want to attend the Preview Party on Friday night from 6-8 p.m. On Saturday, younger children can visit with Corduroy Bear and teenagers will want to catch the award ceremony for the Festival’s first-ever teen short story contest. The three prize winners, all local, will be chosen at 11:45 a.m. and get a chance to read their stories for an audience.

David Highfill, an Academy board member and vice president and executive editor at publishing house William Morrow & Co., is co-chair of this year’s Festival. For the past five years he’s been involved in everything from the Festival’s programming to the sorting of its book donations. “It’s a bit like channeling your inner librarian,” he says about organizing the titles. 

Highfill is especially excited about Sunday’s event, “My Search Through History,” a discussion between bestselling author Simon Winchester and WAMC’s Alan Chartock. Although he’s a Sandisfield, Mass. resident, Winchester (The Professor and the Madman; Krakatoa; The Men Who United the States) is a popular speaker and this will be the first time he’s available to participate in the Festival. “I’m thrilled that he’s so excited to do it because I think he’s one of the great historians working today,” says Highfill. “He and Alan are friends, so it will be interesting to hear them in conversation.”

RI readers will recognize another familiar face when food writer extraordinaire Ruth Reichl and Luke Barr discuss “The Reinvention of American Taste” on Saturday. Reichl is revered by foodies, and Barr is the great nephew of M.F.K. Fisher and author of Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, so there’s sure to be a lot to chew on in this conversation.

Also on Saturday, historian and Williamstown, Mass. resident Alex Kershaw will join historical novelists David R. Gillham (City of Women) and moderator Daphne Kalotay (Russian Winter; Sight Reading) to discuss “Heroes and Spies, Real and Imagined.” The three will explore the role of resisters during the WWII and share themes of courage and moral choices in occupied Paris and in Berlin.

Alex Kershaw, photo by Michael Carroll.

In Kershaw’s latest book, Avenue of Spies, the author delves into a story that proves that truth really is stranger than fiction. The work focuses on American physician Sumner Jackson and his wife and son, who, during WWII, lived in France on a street surrounded by some of the most evil figures of the day. Drawn into the resistance movement, Jackson smuggled fallen Allied fighter pilots safely out of France, right under the nose of his neighbors: a Nazi “mad sadist,” spy hunters, secret police and the Gestapo headquarters.

“The son is still alive, so I spent time with him and it became personal for me,” Kershaw says. “The family was amazingly courageous and they paid a very high price for it.”

Kershaw explains his participation in the Festival — and sums up how many book lovers feel — by saying, “A festival that brings a bunch of readers together is a good and rare thing, and I’ll do anything to help people enjoy books.”     

10th Annual Festival of Books
Friday, September 4 - Monday, September 7
Spencertown Academy Arts Center
790 Route 203, Spencertown, NY
(518) 392-3693

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 08/25/15 at 11:44 AM • Permalink

Q & A With Author And Activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin

“Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate” is the latest work by feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Set in 1980s New York City, the novel focuses on Zach Levy, son of Holocaust survivors, who promises his mother on her deathbed that he will marry within the tribe.  Conflict ensues when he falls in love with Cleo Scott, an African American activist who could be his soul mate. In telling the story, Pogrebin probes weighty issues including self identity, inherited pain and the legacy of trauma. RI’s Lisa Green met up with Pogrebin, a part-time resident of the Berkshires, who will be speaking about the novel and signing copies at the Lenox Library on Friday, July 24 at 6:30 p.m.

RI: You delve into so many profound issues in this book, but the overriding one seems to be the question whether or not Zach — a stand-in for many of us — is obligated to choose guilt over love. Do you think non-Jews feel that to the extent that Jews do?

LCP: I often wonder if there’s any equivalent to the way Jews feel responsible for the diminishing numbers of us.  I don’t know if any other people have a sense of how they could disappear. I did want to really describe what that feels like.

RI: Zach makes a promise to his mother, even though he doesn’t practice Judaism in any traditional way — he doesn’t keep kosher, doesn’t attend synagogue except maybe once a year. Yet, as you write, “The essence of his Jewish identity was his obsession with his Jewish identity.”

LCP: We struggle. We have so many gradations along the spectrum. You can be a once-a-year Jew in synagogue terms, yet very Jewish…whether it’s a few rituals that are family oriented or identifying with our heroes, that kind of Jewishness. An Orthodox Jewish person wouldn’t say we’re Jewish, but we are, we feel it.

RI: Zach was so stuck on finding his bashert — his soul mate — he couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

LCP: When you have a filter that all the prospective dates in your life have to fall through, you close down so many options, and religion is a big one. The question for me in this book is, do you give up love for a kind of macro responsibility to your faith/tradition? What does continuity mean? What are you going to practice? You start slicing it very thin. It’s a conversation that’s very real and self defining. It forces you to distill meaning, instead of saying, I’ve got to marry a Jew, I’ve got to have Jewish children. What constitutes raising a child Jewish?

RI: How much of the writing was a way to sort out your own feelings?

LCP: All the things we’re talking about are things that obsess me. That’s my Jewish identity: obsessing over my Jewish identity. I feel like I am a transitional generation. My mother was born in Hungary and came here when she was 9. My father was born on the boat over, so his was an immigrant family. One third of each of their families perished in the Holocaust. We were very aware in the war that people weren’t answering their letters; care packages came back. Even though I was a tiny kid, you don’t miss that. My kids have grown up with none of that — the sense that if we lose this war we’ll be dead, too. The Holocaust is a historical event for them, but to me it feels like something I lived through. That’s why I have Zach saying, How can you have a flashback on something you didn’t experience? But you can — you fill in all the blanks.

For me to write about this displaces it onto some other characters but feels exactly what I feel, think about, worry about. The issue of race relations, especially black and Jewish, matters a lot to me. I was in a black-Jewish dialogue group for ten years, which is the only way I could feel entitled to write about Cleo. So black-Jewish relations, Jewish identity, the power of inherited trauma, the question of desire versus obligation — those are big things for me. But I didn’t end the book anywhere dispositive.

RI: A book reviewer said that you posed enormous questions without suggesting answers or even that they exist, that the search is the thing.

LCP: We’re much too focused on 10 tips for your garden, the recipe for happiness…it flattens the complexity of life, sands down all the rough edges. That’s not how life is. Between Zach and Cleo you have worlds in their past and their hearts. To wrap it all up neatly would be a disservice to all those worlds that are whirling around inside of those characters.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Friday, July 24, 6:30 p.m.
The Lenox Library
(413) 637-2630

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Posted by Lisa Green on 07/10/15 at 02:15 PM • Permalink

Readers: Enjoy A Day Of Books And Authors At ‘Off The Page’

By Paige Darrah

New York City residents might be familiar with “Open House,” in which publishing giant Random House invites readers to its offices to spend a day with A-list authors. In the wake of those successful events, Random House will take authors “Off the Page” and into Upstate’s Basilica Hudson on Saturday, July 11. The first event of its kind in the Hudson Valley will feature keynote speakers Ruth Reichl, former Gourmet editor and New York Times food critic, and Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project.

“The main goal of our special events program is to connect readers with authors and readers with readers – a model that has proven very successful,” says Theresa Zoro, Random House’s director of publicity and communications. “The spirit of the Hudson Valley cultural scene perfectly embodies our vision for a day of literary inspiration.” It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that a number of the authors and speakers participating in the program have homes in this “culturally engaged community.”

It’s also an opportunity for the area to shine. Random House is partnering with local businesses like Gracie’s (one of the several food trucks that’ll be parked at Basilica throughout the day); Hudson-Chatham Winery (they’re doing tastings); and an Etsy pop-up shop featuring local Hudson Valley artisans.

The day begins with Reichl, who will be discussing her forthcoming Hudson Valley-centered cookbook (her first in 40 years), My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Changed My Life. The book’s gritty photographs — Gourmet-magazine-era prop food stylists are notably absent — span farmers market, forests and all four seasons, capturing the region via an inquisitive culinary lens. 

“I think that this is one of the best places in the world to live… especially if you’re a cook,” Reichl says during a phone interview from her home in Columbia County. “I was in such a bad place [following Condé Nast’s abrupt shuttering of Gourmet in 2009]. Being up here really grounded me. My whole attitude about life changed in that year. I was able to find moments of joy in the kitchen and pay attention to pleasure again.”

Gretchen Rubin will give the afternoon keynote speech focusing on habits and happiness, the subject of her latest book, Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits of Our Everyday Lives. “Many of us have a draining habit that crowds out healthier, more productive activities,” Rubin says. She’ll offer some habit-changing strategies that will help you live your best life — a recurring theme of the event. 

There will be a variety of talks and book-inspired workshops throughout the day: mix-and-match sessions — dealing with “stuff,” standout travel destinations, meditation exercises, book club advice and more — plus time to meet and greet the authors and editors. And who doesn’t love a nice tote bag filled with summer reads and other goodies?

The event will be capped with a wine tasting featuring selections from local wineries; a special al fresco dinner is an add on.

Books, authors, food and wine — what could be better? Only, maybe, that it’s happening right in the Rural Intelligence region.

Off The Page at Basilica Hudson
Saturday, July 11, 9 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
110 South Front Street, Hudson, NY
Tickets: $100 (tote bag included)

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/23/15 at 12:49 PM • Permalink