Lighting the Way to Literacy
Steve Leveen and Lori Grainger were having the usual argument -- about which one of them would get to use the couple's sole reading lamp -- when they hit upon the idea for a business. If they were battling over the good reading light, the pair figured, the problem might be a source of contention between other voracious readers. From their last names they cobbled together a company name -- Levenger -- placed a small advertisement in The New Yorker magazine for an ergonomic reading lamp of their own design, and filled mail orders from their Boston garage.
That was 13 years ago, and the couple (now married) earned $100,000 their first year in business. Last year Levenger took in $80 million. In the interim the duo expanded their range of products; moved to Florida; spent a few years in a Delray Beach storefront; and five years ago built their 10,000-square-foot showroom, offices, and café across town.
The retail part of Levenger -- motto: "Tools for the serious reader" -- consists of a series of sales rooms filled with beautifully crafted artifacts for people who love to read and write: pens, bookshelves, stationery, reading chairs. A banner inside the front entrance proclaims it "a world of unusual, yet highly practical products for readers, writers, and thinkers." But the staff at Levenger goes much further than simply supplying the tools; it actively promotes literacy, and toward that end this weekend the store will host the Palm Beach County Cultural Council's tenth annual BookFest.
On Saturday a collection of Florida fiction and historical writers, in panels and individual talks, explores the theme "Florida: Fact or Fiction?" South Floridian Peter Matthiessen, world-famous for his naturalist adventures and the books he's written describing them, will be anointed Palm Beach 2000 Author Laureate for the occasion. The author of the Mister Watson trilogy about a 19th-century settler in the Everglades whose neighbors ambush him after he murders his own family, Matthiessen launches the proceedings with a talk. He's followed by a series of panels: "Murder and Mayhem in South Florida," "Floridians at War," and "What Makes a Florida Story?" among others. Al Burt, Florida's self-styled historian and a Miami Herald columnist for 22 years, shares anecdotes from his just-published book, The Tropic of Cracker.
"Word Into Image," Sunday's theme, offers a set of moviemakers, photographers, screenwriters, and producers exploring the art of publishing and turning the written into the visual.
Fest activities will be held in the Main Community Room, but during breaks be sure to browse the main store. Levenger recently acquired Sir Isaac Newton's walking stick, an exquisitely made cane of tortoiseshell with gold and silver ornamentation. The cane once owned by the discoverer of gravity is meant to inspire seekers of knowledge, who Levenger's proprietors claim all of their customers are. The cane has inspired Levenger designers themselves to create a series of related objects, including journals for keeping track of those stray thoughts that might evolve into groundbreaking theory (such as the theory of gravity expounded in Principia Mathematica by Newton in 1687); a hand-carved, cherry-wood apple to store desktop odds and ends; and a paperweight that assures papers will stay down without first going up.
While some of the items at Levenger are designed by the company itself, others are fine reproductions of famous objects. Splendid, beaux-arts-style reading chairs and table lamps, for example, are modeled after those in the great Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library; the Bestlite lamp, made by a British company since 1894, was found at Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill's country home; and the Barristers are glass-front, sectional bookcases made since 1909 and called "barristers" because so many English lawyers use them.
Despite its retail haven, Levenger is still largely catalog-driven, putting out a monthly glossy book containing hundreds of items. The emporium also boasts an Outlet Store, which sells items at a 30 percent discount, and a semiannual sale features deals 50 to 80 percent off original catalog prices.
But don't wait for a special sale or BookFest to enjoy a visit. Exploring Levenger is like trundling through ye olde curiosity shoppe on any occasion.
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