- Courtesy Photo
- Ken Abramson
The great philosopher Rumi said, “When we are dead, seek not our tomb in the earth, but find it in the hearts of men.” For those of us who have shared some part of our lives with him, whether briefly or over the course of many years, Ken Abramson indeed lives on in our hearts as we mourn his untimely passing on September 28, 2020.
The beloved son of the late Edward and Selma Abramson and brother of Gary, who survives him, Ken was born on April 28, 1951, in Philadelphia and spent his childhood years living in suburban Glenside, Pa. At the age of 6, he asked his mother to take him to a German expressionist film festival he'd read about in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Though somewhat perplexed by the request and the films, she quickly understood that Ken was no ordinary kid.
He was reading fluently before he entered kindergarten, and over time his bedroom began to resemble a library. He took joy in less cerebral aspects of life, as well — playing baseball in the backyard, ping-pong in the basement, and creating hilarious, whimsical radio dramas with his buddies. By age 12, he was the synagogue choir lead singer and developed a talent as a budding raconteur, telling funny and complex stories to his friends. These talents stayed with him throughout his life.
When it was time to go to college, Ken first selected New York University film school but soon transferred to Franconia College, a small experimental liberal arts institution housed in what was once a historic hotel in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There, he fell in with a small circle of friends with whom he maintained close ties throughout his life. By then, his cultural and intellectual pursuits were so eclectic and wide-ranging that they far exceeded the modest constraints of the Franconia curriculum. His dorm room became a combination library, literary salon, listening room, all-night party zone and crash pad. Rather than fulfilling the requirements of being a student, Ken was instead a teacher, introducing friends, visitors and curiosity seekers to a dizzying array of music, poetry, literature and film. He also distinguished himself as the reigning college ping-pong and trivia champion.
Upon leaving Franconia, Ken spent the better part of a year traveling and hitchhiking with friends around Europe. He returned to Pennsylvania and eventually moved into a house in Philadelphia’s storied South Side with some of his Franconia friends. This is where he began his career as a bookseller. Working behind the counter at the Meridian Bookstore on South Street, he continued his role as educator and adviser, introducing his customers to a wide range of literature and poetry. He later served a similar role for music lovers at Third Street Jazz and Rock.
Throughout his life, Ken continued to expand the cultural horizons of his loyal customers in bookstores throughout the Northeast. He moved to Vermont in 1980, where he worked for 15 years in the Wit and Wisdom and Chapters Bookstores in South Burlington and Shelburne. He ultimately moved on to book distribution and publishing and retired in 2008. In 2009, Ken was hospitalized for nine months with a serious condition that almost took his life. He was able to pull through but had to deal with the aftermath of this illness until his death.
Upon release from the hospital, Ken returned to his home in Pleasant Valley, N.Y. Every day for breakfast, he would walk the long steep hill from his apartment to the Village Restaurant, where he was known and welcomed as a local character. True to his nature, his apartment was a temple of culture, with books, records and CDs lining bookshelves and teetering precariously in a profusion of randomly placed piles. Indeed, his apartment was better stocked than most bookstores and record shops. Those who visited him can look back on afternoons and evenings sitting on his couch as Ken would sample selections of recordings from every conceivable era, geographical location, musical style and cultural origin.
But Ken was not just a collector. His library was also in his head. He read voraciously and developed an encyclopedic knowledge covering a wide range of literature and nonfiction.
A truly remarkable and unique person, with sharp wit and intellect, he was also a great conversationalist. When you talked to Ken, you were simultaneously impressed not just by his understanding of the subject matter, but also by the sense that nothing was more important at that moment than what you had to say, and that he truly cared about you and wished you well.
Ken was also a talented poet and sang with a clear and beautiful voice. In his humility, he was shy about these talents and only rarely shared them with others.
When he was together with his friends, there was always great joy and laughter. He was as humble and kind and hilarious and generous of spirit as he was erudite and articulate. He had wisdom without being a wise guy. He enriched the lives of those who knew him by virtue of his loving nature and enthusiasm for all things cultural. Gentle and without malice or hatred — that’s what those who knew him think when they recall Ken.
Ken was deeply loved by his family and friends, and we all felt his love and generosity for as long as he was in our lives. He will live on in our hearts.
A celebration of life will be held next summer/fall, when COVID-19 restrictions have improved. Donations in Ken’s memory may be made to PEN America, which protects free expression in the United States and worldwide. For further information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.