For more than 50 years, the Book & Tackle Shop at the end of Bay Street in Watch Hill delighted residents and visitors alike. The shop was founded by Bernard Gordon, affectionately known as Bernie. It was impossible to tell where the Book & Tackle ended and the man began. The community mourned when Bernie passed away at the age of 80 in 2010. His passing signaled not only the end of an iconic shop but the end of an era in Watch Hill.
Bernard Ludwig Gordon, the youngest of five children, grew up across the river, in Pawcatuck, Connecticut. His father owned a grocery store in Pawcatuck and the family spent summers at their beach house in Misquamicut. The house was destroyed by the 1938 hurricane and this experience heightened Bernie’s fascination and love of the ocean. After graduating from Stonington High School in 1949, Bernie’s long fascination with the ocean led to him get a degree in marine biology from the University of Rhode Island in 1955.
Bernie was an undergrad, in search of a summer income, when he opened the shop in 1953. For as long as he could remember, Bernie had been collecting books, particularly books about the sea. It seemed inevitable that his two passions, books, and the sea, would combine into the Book & Tackle Shop. A store became available in Watch Hill and he rented it for $150 for the season.
The shop, as the name implies, sold both books and tackle when it first opened. One half of the store was devoted to used books and the other half sold fishing gear. This dichotomy was also represented in the window displays, one displayed books and the other was filled with brightly colored lures. Bernie even had a tank with live eels, used for bait, but sometimes the eels would escape scaring the book customers so eventually, the fishing gear gave way to more books.
There were rows and rows and piles upon piles of old books in the delightfully cluttered shop. The books were loosely organized into categories as if by some mad scientist. Only Bernie knew the key to where every book was. I, like many, loved the shop which in 1998 was voted the best-used book store in Rhode Island by Rhode Island Monthly.
Walking by the shop without stopping was an impossible task. First, there were the racks with over one-hundred thousand old postcards, many with photographs Bernie had taken. In the window were photographs of Hurricane Carol and the great 38 Hurricane, books on shipwrecks and maritime disasters. Many of the twenty-thousand or so books were about obscure topics like the geology of Block Island, the History of Fishes, or Albert Einstein. Why Einstein you ask? He spent a summer in Watch Hill in the 1930s. Part of the fun of the shop was exploring the dark recesses looking for that hidden gem, a rare first edition that could be resting comfortably next to old Life Magazines.
Bernie didn’t brag about his accomplishments but he was a noted scholar and the author of 16 books, many professional books in his field of marine science. Four of his professional books were “The Marine Fishes of Rhode Island,” “Ocean Sciences, Resources and Technology,” “Man and the Sea: Classic Accounts of Marine Explorations,” and “The Secret Life of Fishes.” He taught oceanography and earth science courses at Rhode Island College and Boston University and was professor emeritus Northeastern University.
In 1974 Bernie and his wife, Esther, collaborated on a series of children’s books on extinct animals including, “There Really Was a Dodo,” “If an Auk Could Talk,” “Once There Was a Sea Cow,” and “Once There Was a Passenger Pigeon.”
Bernie did book signings in front of his shop. The black and white photograph in this article is from a story in the 1999 edition of Tidings Magazine of Bernie and author Linda Greenlaw, at a book signing, for her book, “The Hungry Ocean.” Bernie co-hosted a radio program for eleven years with Chris DiPaola on Thursday mornings on WBLQ-AM. The program was called Book-Talk at Booktack and they interviewed authors such as Sebastian Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm,” as well as locals who had done something notable.
Bernie retired from Northeastern in 2000, but not from his writing projects or the Book & Tackle, which over the years had shifted in focus primarily to selling rare and antiquarian books.
In 2005, a Guilford-based developer, who owned the building, announced plans to raze the historic shop building and replace it with a combination condominium and retail building. Although Bernie, and a group of residents, campaigned against the development, arguing that it would destroy the historic character of Watch Hill, the plans went through and the original Book and Tackle Shop closed its doors that fall. The company continued on for a few more years, first in a corner of the new building and then on Main Street in Westerly, specializing in selling rare and antiquarian books until finally closing.
“The store is where his heart pointed him,’’ said his daughter Jocelyn. “It ended up evolving into a local magnet for a lot of people. He ended up becoming a local icon. He was sort of the neighborhood know-it-all about the ocean.’’
Sadly, now the only way to get a sense of the charm of the old shop is through photographs, like the faded postcards Bernie used to sell.
“Bernie was Bernie, there’s no one else like him,” said George Nicholas, owner of the St. Clair Annex. “A significant piece of our community’s history is gone.”