GREENWICH – The most recent chapter in the story of Sydney Nichols and Eric Kufs is a testament to the power of social media. The pair made a bold move — literally and literarily — in February when they sold their Los Angeles home and purchased an 1830s side-hall colonial with a bookstore on 100 acres in Greenwich.
The impetus? A Facebook post.
“The bookstore was the draw,” said Nichols, a graphic designer who is pursuing a master’s degree in library science. “We stumbled on the listing on Facebook and thought it sounded pretty magical. We hadn’t been looking to move, but it just seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.”
Nichols was the one that actually found the link, and she forwarded it to Kufs with the question, “Do you want to run a bookstore in a barn on a 100-acre property in upstate New York?” Kufs, a Long Island native who had lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, told her to look into it.
Before they could request to talk to the real estate agent, the couple had to pass the seller’s test. Edie Brown had owned Owl Pen Books and the home with Hank Howard since 1980. When he died in 2020, Brown decided it was time to sell. However, she wanted a buyer who would continue Owl Pen Books’ 62-year legacy.
The bookstore and the property have a long history. Town Historian Sandy McReynolds found a note on the town’s historic structure survey that the 1853 and 1866 map atlases show William Alexander living in that location. However, at some point after that time the property was abandoned until Barbara Probst stumbled on the property in 1944 when her car broke down.
Like Nichols and Kufs, she was not looking to leave her life in New York City, where she worked as an editorial assistant for “Madamoiselle” magazine, when she drove the winding country roads of Washington County. But something about the dilapidated, abandoned farmhouse drew her in. A few weeks later she owned the property, and began the process of remodeling the structure — largely a DIY job assisted by local farm boys. For the first two years of the restoration, the city girl lived in what had formerly been a hog pen and used an outhouse for a bathroom. The small living quarters are still there today, wafting the earthy scent of an animal pen.
Probst raised chickens and goats for the first 16 years she lived on the property while she modernized the home to include heat, electricity and indoor plumbing. However, in 1960, her love of books, reading and writing prompted her to open Owl Pen Books, which she housed initially in the former hog pen.
Despite its rural location down a dirt road the business thrived, and soon Probst relocated the chickens and turned the chicken coop she had built as an extension of the original 200-year-old barn into the main bookstore, where it stands today. As an homage to its original purpose there is still chicken wire on the building.
Like many others, Nichols and Kufs were prompted by the pandemic to reevaluate what was important to them.
“We had a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house, and we thought we’d be living there for the next 20 years,” said Kufs, a singer, songwriter, musician and adjunct English professor.
When they began considering a move to the Northeast, they realized they had the potential for a larger home, better schools, better property and to have money in the bank given the housing market in Los Angeles, where houses were selling for astronomically high prices during the pandemic.
“It felt like this was a place where we could move our careers in a good direction and have a better work-life balance,” Nichols said.
But before they could get to New York to meet the seller, another buyer made an offer. Fortunately for the couple, that offer fell through, and they hopped on the next flight to meet Brown. “She liked us,” Kufs said, smiling.
So, they made an offer of $470,000, sold their Los Angeles home and packed up a moving container with a few pieces of furniture and belongings. They, along with their 4-year-old daughter Sally Jane, stayed with Kufs’ mother on Long Island until the container was dropped off on the day they closed on the home. “We unpacked it as the snow started to fall, and a day later there was a foot of snow on the ground,” Nichols said.
To say the move was a huge adjustment would be an understatement.
“Getting used to living in a house this old was a change,” Nichols said, noting that their Los Angeles home had been built in 1940.
Fortunately, the idea of restoring the house was a big draw for the couple. “We are people who love old houses and old things,” Nichols said.
But the reality of it was a shock. “I caught six mice in the first couple of days,” Kufs said. “But we’re learning to let the spiders live because they help keep the bugs out.”
“We’re learning to live with nature,” Nichols added. There have been bats in the shutters, too.
The weather has been another big change. “I was wearing my slippers well into May,” Kufs said. The home has oil heat with a propane stove for additional heat. Probst built a fireplace in the front room of the home but it has not been used for a long time.
Even as they discuss the critters they’ve encountered, including fireflies in their upstairs bedroom (“Our bedroom is like outdoors,” Kufs said), they handle it all with a laid-back sense of humor.
The process of renovating the home will be a slow one. Like many other homeowners, they’ve had trouble finding an available contractor.
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They did put in a laundry room right away, which involved some new plumbing. “That’s pretty much all that we’ve been able to do so far,” Nichols said. “We’re going to gut the kitchen, which is hopefully happening in September.”
The entrance to the home is through the mudroom, which was formerly the woodshed. This opens to a large room that houses the kitchen, a dining table and a seating area near the fireplace as well as a staircase. A door leads to a den with a television and then through another door to a hallway, where there is an additional staircase and a door that opens to another room now serving as Kufs’ music studio and library. Upstairs there are three bedrooms — which the couple uses as Sally Jane’s bedroom, a guest room and the master bedroom — and two full bathrooms. There are built-in drawers in the large hallway area. Currently, cables hold up the support structures in the master bedroom.
Nichols noted that the guest bedroom has the only wide pine plank floor that has not been painted. The other floors are painted, and Probst noted in her diary that perhaps she shouldn’t have painted them, a sentiment Nichols and Kufs echo. Nichols said that figuring out what to do with the floors in the front half of the house is going to “take a little investigating.”
“We’re hoping the floor is in good enough condition that we can refinish it,” she said.
They’re discovering other things along the way. For example, the kitchen sink doesn’t connect to the main drain line leading to the septic system. Rather, it drains on the other side of the house. “That is a mystery we have to fix,”
Nichols said. There are other projects, too, including fixing the master bedroom ceiling, which is bowing; refurbishing windows; painting the exterior; restoring the shutters; and paving the driveway. The couple noted that while the home had not been updated, it was maintained.
When they renovate, they want to try to salvage some of the inner architectural elements, such as the panels on the front of the kitchen counter, which they could see used as open shelving or on an island.
Nichols said the panels in the living room were salvaged from a house that had burned down. They had been inside a wall and totally protected.
“That is the most unique feature of the house,” she said, along with a spiral staircase.
Reactions from friends and family about their decision to uproot themselves from California and take on a centuries-old farmhouse were mixed.
Kufs’ family was happy to have them closer, but why all the way up in rural Washington County, they wondered.
There were friends who tried to convince them to keep the house in Los Angeles and rent it out, as “the risk” of what the couple had planned “freaked them out,” Kufs said. Some friends ask if their new home is “too quiet.”
“There were a lot of friends and family that didn’t really understand, but there were also plenty of people that were rooting us on,” Kufs said. They admired the couple’s courage to take on such an endeavor.
While it is a great deal of work — both the house and operating Owl Pen as novice bookstore owners — they’re committed. While they’re remodeling the house they’ll also be working on growing the business. Just as Probst mentored Brown and Howard, Brown is mentoring the couple on running the business.
They’ve already added a section of vinyl records, speaking to Kufs’ profession. People can hear him live at weekly gigs at various locations throughout the Capital Region. The couple also wants to partner with other local businesses to have events at Owl Pen.
Nichols and Kufs are also increasing their social media presence on Facebook and Instagram. “We’re trying to bring a new generation of people in,” Nichols said, noting that there have been many families who have been coming to the store for generations, with grandparents bringing their grandchildren. Owl Pen has a whole section dedicated to children’s books.
They opened for their first season this year on April 30, Independent Bookstore Day, which is traditionally the last Saturday in April. Owl Pen Books will remain open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday through Oc. 30. Over the winter, they’ll be working on listing inventory for online sales. For information, visit owlpenbooks.com.