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Wonderful history lies behind Black Forest Books’ location

From Jack Claiborne, a retired associate editor of the Observer:

All friends of reading and children’s literature should mourn the closing of Black Forest Books at the end of this month, especially since the shop now occupies its most fitting location – the home of a woman who taught hundreds and hundreds of children to read.

The shop is in “the purple house” at 1942 East Seventh Street, where until her death in the 1970s Caroline Constable lived with her spinster sister Hannah. For many years Miss Constable taught the third grade at Elizabeth School and made a name for herself throughout the neighborhood as “the suet lady.”

But what a teacher! Miss Constable might have been a character in a Harry Potter novel. She had a hoarse, breathless voice, salt and pepper hair, springs of which were forever falling across her round eyeglasses, stockings that sagged, slips that showed and brown print dresses that needed another ironing.

Every fall at Elizabeth School, as cold weather approached, she would smell up the whole building by melting suet on a hot plate in her classroom, instruct the 30 to 35 children under her care to add seeds and nuts to the liquid, allow it to cool and hang it on strings outside the windows to attract birds.

When the birds came to feed she would teach us to identify them – sparrows, wrens, cardinals, blue jays, finches. And as she taught us to read she divided the class into bird groups – red birds, blue birds, yellow birds, and so on. When she read to us she did so with great animation. She taught cursive writing with the same gusto, patiently encouraging little hands to glide across the paper rather than form letters with squiggly fingers.

Under our classroom windows, Miss Constable maintained a rock garden and taught us to plant thrift and candy tuft and crocus bulbs and to cheer when they bloomed.

Best of all, on a warm spring day she would invite the whole class to her Seventh Street home for tea and cookies and a tour of her gardens. It was a marvelous house, finished in dark hardwoods, with window seats on the stairway landings and fireplaces both upstairs and down.

The house, now painted a warm lavender, is still much the same inside, though it is fittingly lined by shelves of the books and toys of Black Forest Books, where the staff, in the spirit of Miss Constable, has for 34 years guided parents to books their children would enjoy, remember and learn from. The shop’s closing is an intellectual loss to the community.

When I asked Pat Siegfried, the Black Forest owner, what would happen to the house when her shop closes, she said, “It’ll probably be demolished.”

Let’s hope not. Given its wonderful history, it deserves a kinder fate.

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