Fran and Michael Keilty, owners of the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot and Maple Spring Farm in Morris, were honored for their volunteer contributions to economic development, the arts, tourism, education, and sustainability.
By Jennifer Clement
Many of Connecticut’s small towns are touted for their strong sense of community. In Washington, the people and places that contribute to that overall feeling of well-being, what the French call bien ȇtre, are celebrated uniquely by The Gunnery’s presentation of the Friend of the Green Award.
This year’s award was presented November 23 to Fran and Michael Keilty, owners of the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington Depot and Maple Spring Farm in Morris, for their volunteer contributions to economic development, the arts, tourism, education and sustainability. At the heart of their story, however, is the well-stocked and welcoming independent bookshop that will soon celebrate its 70th anniversary and has, under the Keiltys’ ownership for the past 16 years, become a community hub, and a local attraction for bibliophiles of all ages.
“What bookstores offer is a sense of community, a gathering place for people,” Fran Keilty said. “Our philosophy is to say yes, except for when there is a compelling reason not to say yes. We’re a destination. Certainly we have good support in Washington, but people come from all over.”
Over the years, the shop has hosted midnight launch parties for the newest releases in the Harry Potter series, and created in-store displays featuring all 339 books that TV character Rory Gilmore was said to have read for the Gilmore Girls Fan Fest. When the late Frank McCourt was in store to read from his 2005 memoir “Teacher Man,” the Keiltys were struck by the number of parents of his former students in New York, who came to thank him for what he had done for their children.
“When we first moved to Litchfield County, the very first establishment I walked into was the Hickory Stick,” said Dani Shapiro, author of The New York Times best-selling memoir, “Inheritance,” as well as four other memoirs and five novels. “To find a well-curated, warm, welcoming bookstore in the heart of my new town made me feel right at home.”
“It is a gem and we are fortunate to have such a thriving indie in our community, and all the credit goes to Fran and Michael and their knowledgeable staff,” said Nan Rossiter, who started out as a children’s book author and is now a New York Times bestselling author of adult fiction books. “Fran always has a warm smile and a hug when I stop in, and she’s always ready and willing to host a signing, as she does for so many authors. I think it’s wonderful that they’re receiving this award – it’s well deserved!”
The list of local and well-known authors the shop has welcomed over the years is long and has included adult fiction and nonfiction writers Shapiro, Rossiter, Frank McCourt, Frank Delaney, Ann Leary, Florence de Dampierre, Stuart Woods, Amy Julia Becker, Susanna Salk, Marie Bostwick, and children’s book authors and illustrators Wendell and Florence Minor, Nancy Tafuri and Mary Pope Osborne, among others.
In addition to supporting local authors, the shop hosts a writers group, an in-store book club and community events, including a new Open Mic Night co-sponsored by 9 Main Bakery & Deli in New Preston. Of course, there is also storytime. “One of my greatest pleasures is seeing little ones come into the shop and make a beeline for the children’s section, and seeing families sprawled out on the floor with toys or books on a Saturday. That’s magic,” Fran Keilty said.
Outside of the shop, Keilty has volunteered countless hours to the community both in Washington and Morris, where she and Michael have lived since 1974. A longtime member of the Washington Business Association (she is a former president and current vice president), she is a member of the Washington Economic Development Committee and Washington’s representative on the Western Connecticut Convention and Visitors Bureau. She served on the Region 6 Board of Education for 13 years, including two years as Chair, on the Morris Planning and Zoning Commission and the Morris Library Board, as well as on the Northwest Connecticut Arts Council Board.
Lifelong residents of Litchfield County (she is a native of Woodbury and he grew up on a farm in Bethlehem) the Keiltys met in high school and both are graduates of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, where Michael worked for nearly 20 years as a sustainable agriculture research associate in the Department of Plant Science. Prior to his retirement in 2017, he coordinated a wide variety of sustainable agriculture programs and co-edited a book, “Alternative Health Practices for Livestock,” which was at the forefront of the movement to enhance the health of food animals by reducing excessive antibiotic, hormone and steroid use.
Keilty has worked with livestock producers, veterinarians and extension educators from Maine to West Virginia, conducting seminars, speaking at conferences and teaching at UConn, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Rhode Island. He is the founding chair of the Connecticut Community Gardening Association, and a current member of the Connecticut Food Policy Council and the Governor’s Council on Agriculture Development. He has hosted programs for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut (CTNOFA) at his 35-acre farm, which was the first organic farm in Litchfield County. Keilty grows a variety of produce, herbs and medicinal plants and raises cows, hens, and Cheviot sheep, prized for their wool, which you can buy at Hickory Stick.