Category: Archive

Holy ground

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

She’d been particularly anxious that it wouldn’t upset its owners — who’d become family for the 34-year-old North Carolinian — or its most loyal regulars.
“Had people not loved the book, it would have been very hard,” she said.
But love it they did. And readers from around America have written to the Birr, Co. Offaly-born proprietor Jim Guinan, who’s 79, and to the young author to tell them how much they enjoyed and identified with “The Little Chapel on the River.”
Guinan and his late wife Peg began running Garrison’s small general store and pub in 1959, two years after their arrival in America with their four small children on the Queen Mary.
Bounds stepped into the place for the first time on Nov. 1, 2001. She was visiting a friend who lived near Garrison, a hamlet with one stoplight, just 65 minutes on the express train from Grand Central Terminal.
She and her girlfriend Kathryn Kranhold, who is also a Wall Street Journal reporter, had an appointment later that day with a Manhattan real estate agent. They’d been living in temporary accommodation and searching for a replacement for their home, which was on the 10th floor of the most severely damaged residential building at Ground Zero. The Journal, too, was facing long-term repairs and was operating from its corporate offices in New Jersey and a temporary headquarters in Manhattan.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Bounds was in the shower when the first plane hit. Then, watching CNN, she and Kranhold saw the second plane flying in, just as they heard it roar over their heads.
“I left Jim Guinan’s place that first day and went home and wrote in my diary something to effect of, ‘If I could just sit there and this little pub by the river just be there for a little while, everything would be okay,” she recalled of her feelings on Nov. 1. “I felt instinctively that this was where I was going to find my way back.” Bounds, delayed by the talk and the beers at Guinan’s, missed her real estate appointment; 10 days later, she and her girlfriend moved to Garrison.
On that first day, Jim Guinan himself was behind the bar at the back of the store, a rare occurrence because his diabetic condition restricts his mobility. Had it been his son John or his daughter Margaret or anyone else, things would have been different, the author believes.
Although she became close to all of the Guinans, it was the charismatic patriarch who ignited her interest in the town and its country store and pub — which one regular dubbed a “chapel” as he considered himself blessed to be there. The Irish barman captivated her with allusions to the Revolutionary War and Washington’s army. (Garrison had a “front-row seat at our nation’s birth,” she writes in her book.) Guinan had her entranced, too, with talk of “castles” built by the late 19th century industrial robber barons, which could still be seen on “Millionaires’ Row.” He promised more tales and, if she came back any morning, “your coffee ready just how you like it.”
“It was very serendipitous,” she said. “He just happened to be back there. Some people believe in fate; some don’t. I do – so I think there’s a reason for that.
“I was attracted to his warmth and his hospitality. I was also attracted to his ability to make anybody laugh, to always have a story at his lips. He’s so fast, and I appreciate that in any person — it’s just fun to be around somebody like that.
“And he knows what the weather’s going to be before anybody else,” she added.
She’s still in awe of “his practical knowledge and his ability to take care of an entire town.”
Several of the bar’s regulars helped form her book’s cast of characters, such as the conservative William “Fitz” Fitzgerald III, a former U.S. federal marshal and a Vietnam veteran, liberal attorney Dan Donnelly and Col. Tom Endres, who’d begun drinking at Guinan’s when as a cadet he illegally rowed across the river from West Point. She weaves into the narrative also the life stories of at least a dozen others, including that of her kindly and eccentrically thrifty neighbor, Walter.
“No fiction is more compelling than the truth,” Bounds said.
The most important story is Jim Guinan’s. He was third in a family of 13 children in a Birr household headed by a highway ganger. Like hundreds of thousands of others in the post-war era, he left for England in search of a job paying decent wages and there, in 1950, he met fellow immigrant Peg Curnyn when they were working in the same Birmingham factory. They married the next year and had four children in quick succession – John, Jimmy, Margaret and Christine – before moving to America.
After a brief stopover in the Bronx, the Guinans were lured by one of Peg’s siblings to a tiny town further north — Garrison in the 15-mile rugged stretch of land known as the Hudson Highlands. He got work as a carpenter and helped build the dock there. The couple had just enough money to rent one of the 19th century row houses on the river landing.
The robber barons may have radically altered the American landscape, but they kept their own backyard unspoiled. Some of their descendants worked hard through the 20th century to keep it that way. One of them, Frederick Osborn, helped put the Guinans in business in 1959 and when times were tough early on proposed a plan that secured their future.
Much of the book’s storyline, however, revolves around the business’s precarious existence in the early 21st century. Will John Guinan agree to take over from his father officially, giving it at least a shot at success in the future? In the early 1990s, the succession seemed on and he readied to give up his full-time factory job. However, the elder Guinan decided that his younger daughter Christine and her husband were a better fit for the business and they ran it until they moved to Florida a few years later.
Now, as Bounds takes up the story, the younger Guinan is wary of being burnt again and some of the town’s elders think that perhaps a high-end restaurant might be better use of the space. Still, both John, who works with one of the town’s arborists, and Margaret, a police detective, are combining long shifts at the store with their regular jobs.
The Wall Street Journal reporter conceived the book idea in early 2002 when the Enron scandal hit. As that national story was unfolding, she saw John and Margaret Guinan make considerable sacrifices “for nothing, for no glory, no stock options, nothing except for their loyalty to their dad and this town. I was very blown away by that.”
Bounds took a three-month leave of absence to work at the pub and country store herself. So, just as the Guinans had always done, she rose at 4 a.m. to dispense coffee, rolls and papers to the earliest commuters, those taking the 5:09 train to New York City, and she tended bar at the pub’s famous “Irish night” of traditional music.
It was a time for her to take stock, too. She had risen rapidly in her 20s, but the catastrophe of Sept. 11 forced her to examine her priorities and the book became a search, as its subtitle says, “for what matters most.”
“Even the busiest, happiest, wealthiest person doesn’t stop and say ‘I have this finite amount of time on this earth, what am I doing? Is this what I want to be doing?'” she said.
One response, she added, is to retreat to the woods in Montana; more realistically, she believes, people can find a balance.
Ultimately, Bounds decided to buy property in Garrison and spend much of the week there, working from home.
The area is perfect for someone who never much liked shopping malls or suburbs. “It’s like someone stopped the clock; it’s very beautiful,” she said.
“The city is one extreme,” she added. “And this place Garrison is the other extreme. I feel better in either extreme.”
The fact that she’s in a same-sex relationship has not been a problem in her small-town community.
“If they said anything behind my back then they did, but it was never to my face,” Bounds said. “I never felt unwelcome.
“There’s a seal of approval that comes with being a part of the Guinan family and I was under their wing,” she said.
John Guinan “was immediately gracious to me.” He confessed later to her that he’d held bigoted views on homosexuality until his wife’s brother was diagnosed with AIDS.
“It changed his life and changed his views,” she said.
The author attributes the generally tolerant and laidback attitude in the bar to someone she never met, Peg Guinan, who died of cancer in 1988.
Jim Guinan, for his part, initially presumed that Bounds and Kranhold were sisters. When the author explained to him that they were a couple, he said simply: “Well that’s good — she’s a nice girl.”
Bounds also found the people of Garrison entirely cooperative and giving of their time when talking about their lives and about what Guinan’s means to them.
“Everybody is bound by their singular love for this place,” she said. “It feels like nothing else.”

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