One of the great, unforgettable doyennes of Wellfleet social life in the 1970s to 1990s was Joanna Fabris, the owner of West Main Books. Her house near the Wellfleet library still bears the word BOOKS.
Although she had lived in Wellfleet for some years, her background was Southern and wealthy: Huntingtons, Kentucky, white gloves, juleps, the Kentucky Derby, which she faithfully followed annually, sometimes going to the Lighthouse restaurant and bar to watch it.
Her father believed that girls should learn all the skills that are taught to boys, so Joanna learned to hunt and fish and earned a pilot’s license.
An elegant bohemian, she usually dressed in finds from the AIM thrift shop, colorful and flowing, and when at home was almost always barefoot. She carried her Egyptian Oval cigarettes in a fine burled wood case, the gift of an admirer.
The family wealth did not follow her to Wellfleet, partly because she preferred a more free-spirited life and interesting people. To support herself and her two children, she turned her home into a bookshop and gathering place for social and cultural pursuits. It grew into a small and active business, the tiny rooms of the typical Cape house now a warren of books.
In summer, one might encounter Harvard professors perusing the shelves for summer reading, and parents bringing their children in to choose books. Joanna was highly selective; for a small bookshop, West Main Books had astonishing range.
In winter, it was a place where you would run into friends, sit around with Joanna, and gossip or seek reading advice. Sometimes the space was used for small lectures, meetings, and musical recitals.
In the back part of the house were Joanna’s kitchen and dining room, and this is where it all really happened. She was an extraordinary cook and on a small budget could produce sit-down dinners of imagination and quality for up to 10 people. Arty guests brought cheap but drinkable wines to be served in her antique crystal stemware. Or if someone had just sold a painting or hit the jackpot, a bottle of brut champagne was welcome.
Many guests were renowned figures from the literary, scientific, and artistic communities of the Outer Cape, along with whoever blew into town that day. The wine would flow, the voices rise, the laughter ring. Fierce arguments also broke out. The hostess herself had usually reached a mellow, transcendent level of enjoyment from it all and let it roll while she licked her fingers serving the dessert. On July 14, the Marseillaise was sung, especially if any French visitors or francophiles were present.
I cannot pass the house at 41 West Main without a twinge of nostalgia for the warmth and life it then held. Joanna, now in her late 80s, is in a nursing home off Cape. Her daughter Gemma reports that Joanna’s only request of the moment is for some figs and a decent cheese to go with them.