hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture May 2022


Shedding urban careers for a rural pace

Family leaves California to take charge of area vintage bookstore


Sydney Nichols and Eric Kufs stand with their daughter Sally Jane in the children’s section at Owl Pen Books. Nichols and Kufs are the new owners of the 60-year-old vintage bookstore in Greenwich, N.Y. Joan K. Lentini photo


Sydney Nichols and Eric Kufs stand with their daughter Sally Jane in the children’s section at Owl Pen Books. Nichols and Kufs are the new owners of the 60-year-old vintage bookstore in Greenwich, N.Y. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


When the pandemic prompted Sydney Nichols and Eric Kufs to reassess their lives and careers, the couple ultimately decided to take a big leap.

Now they’ve landed in upstate New York in a new life that’s far removed from the traffic, urban sprawl and palm trees of southern California, where she was a graphic designer and he taught college English and worked as a musician.

These days, Nichols and Kufs walk from their two-story farmhouse to their new workplace in an elongated red barn that once housed a bustling chicken coop. They are the new owners of Owl Pen Books, a beloved 60-year-old institution with a bountiful inventory of used and rare books covering everything from geology to poetry and from history to cooking.

They bought the business in a package deal with their new home and 100 acres along Riddle Road on an east-facing mountain ridge. It’s a setting they couldn’t have imagined for themselves and their young daughter even a couple of years ago.

“I never thought I’d own a bookstore – let alone a bookstore in a barn,” Nichols said with a smile.
Although she’d lived in southern California all her life, Nichols said the pandemic and other changes spurred her and Kufs to explore their options for going somewhere new.

“It was getting more and more expensive to live in Los Angeles,” she said. “And it also was getting hotter and hotter. We didn’t see that changing during the next 20 years.”

Last summer, Nichols happened upon an online listing for a 100-acre property in upstate New York that included an established vintage bookstore.

Intrigued, she forwarded the link — “half jokingly,” she said — to her husband. He ended up embracing the idea.

“The more we looked into it, the more appealing it was,” Kufs recalled. “It was a property with a purpose, and we liked the idea of running a business that’s an institution.”

Nichols began floating the idea of a cross-country move to their friends. It turned out one of those friends knew someone who lived in Greenwich. That person agreed to record a video tour of the 200-year-old farmhouse for the couple. The virtual walk-through only intensified their interest.


Palm trees to snow
Nichols and Kufs reached out to the seller, Edie Brown, and her real estate agent, Virginia Tremblay of Barkley Real Estate, but they learned another party had already made an offer. When Tremblay called to say that deal had fallen through, Kufs and Nichols were on the next plane out of Los Angeles to see the property in person.

Six months later, the deal was finalized, and Kufs, Nichols and 4-year-old Sally Jane moved into the farmhouse at the end of February — just in time for a massive snowstorm and a stretch of sub-zero weather. But the family kept their sense of adventure.

“The bookstore wasn’t the only draw for us,” Nichols said. “We liked the idea of having land and so much space around us.”

Brown and her late husband, Hank Howard, had owned and operated Owl Pen Books since 1980. After Howard’s death two years ago, she decided her tenure overseeing the business was reaching its conclusion.

“It was a lot of work for one person — not just the bookstore but the property maintenance,” Brown said. “It was a great run, but I knew it was time.”

Though she was eager to sell, Brown was adamant that the new owners must understand they were buying more than just a slice of country paradise, but also a business operation.
“When Sydney and Eric visited the property for the first time, I showed them the bookstore first,” Brown recalled.

Then Tremblay gave them a tour of the house the next day.
When it became clear that Kufs and Nichols were enthusiastic about keeping the bookstore going, Brown breathed a sigh of relief. Preserving the one-of-a-kind operation — and continuing its service to generations of area book lovers, was at the top of her mind.

“Edie and I were thrilled at the number of people interested in continuing the legacy,” Tremblay said. “We just needed to find the perfect couple, and we did. I’m sure Sydney and Eric will bring new ideas to the bookstore, and they have a great foundation to build on.”


Fateful encounter
Much like the happenstance occurrence of Nichols discovering Owl Pen’s online real estate ad, the bookstore ultimately owes its existence to a chance encounter in 1945 that began with a case of car trouble.

Barbara Probst, then an editorial assistant at Mademoiselle magazine in Manhattan, was visiting friends in Washington County when her car overheated in front of the long-dormant farm. She walked up the driveway, found a spring that provided water for her ailing automobile, and decided the bucolic setting should be hers.

Probst bought the property and turned it into a working chicken farm, with production reaching 1,800 eggs a day at its peak. She also kept a flock of Hampshire sheep as well as a few hogs.
Probst also ran an independent bookstore at Skidmore College. But when the college asked Probst to combine her carefully curated book inventory with college textbooks and supplies, she balked.
Instead, she moved her collection of 1,200 books to the farm in 1960, settling them in a cozy red cabin, a former hog pen next to the farmhouse. Owl Pen Books was born. The name is a hybrid, referring both to old building’s original purpose as a hog pen and to the wrought-iron antique owl that Probst hung at the entrance.

As word of the rural bookstore spread and her customer base kept expanding, Probst outgrew the tiny cabin. So in 1967, she sold her laying hens and relocated the bookstore to the chicken barn, where it’s been ever since.

When Probst began eyeing retirement in the late 1970s, she approached Howard and Brown, whom she’d gotten to know over the years when Howard taught botany and ecology at Skidmore. They were also regular Owl Pen customers, Brown recalled.

“One day when Hank and I were visiting the bookstore, Barbara said to us, ‘Kids, I’m getting a little tired and thinking of selling,’” Brown said. “And that’s how it began.”


Continuing a tradition
When Brown and Howard bought the property in 1980, they were intent on continuing Probst’s legacy.

“We didn’t change the interior of the bookstore except to add more shelves,” Brown said. “And Hank added lots more bookshelves in the two-story barn for backup inventory.”

In that era before the Internet, the couple relied on word of mouth and good press to build business. So when The Philadelphia Inquirer featured the bookstore on the front page of its travel section, the result was a welcome flow of out-of-state license plates to the store’s grassy parking lot.

Brown said she’s excited to see the store beginning a new chapter.
“I’m delighted — not only for the new ownership, but because there’s been no interruption,” she said. “The Owl Pen has been open every year since it started.”

Although the digital age has reshaped the used-book business, in-person browsing is still a crucial component.

“Online sales are a big part of the Owl Pen now, but I have a feeling Sydney and Eric are going to get a lot of walk-in traffic,” Brown said. “They do the social media end of things well.”
Brown remains in Greenwich but has moved into the village.

“I told Sydney I’m not going to hover, but I’ll help in any way I can,” she said.
The barn’s interior still retains the air of a rustic library, its wooden floors, rows of bookcases, armchairs placed in various corners for impromptu reading, and a kid-sized table and chair in the children’s section. In addition to the store’s 50,000 books, Owl Pen also sells postcards, prints, maps and vinyl records.

“I have to admit,” Kufs said as he stood in front of a row of hardcover books in the store’s philosophy section, “I like the feeling of paper when I read.”

And for all the technological advances of the past few decades, he’s not alone. There are still legions of book lovers who insist on doing their reading the old-fashioned way. Factor in a storybook setting on a rural hilltop, and Owl Pen remains a winning formula — even in the age of portable screens.

“When you’re there looking at books, it’s like you’re in a little world of its own,” explained Tremblay, a decades-long customer. “I love going there to de-pressurize. There’s nothing better than sitting on a stone wall and chilling out with a book. It’s just a magical place.”

Owl Pen Books is located at 166 Riddle Road in Greenwich, N.Y., and is open Wednesday through Sunday from May 1 through Nov. 1. Call 518-692-7039 or visit www.owlpenbooks.com for more information.