“Write every day.”
Those were the words of wisdom given to Barry Koplen when he was an aspiring writer—before he ran a business, taught creative writing, practiced photography, or wore many other hats he’s tried on over his years in Danville.
But now that he’s “retired,” Koplen does exactly that. He writes every day. So much so, in fact, that he has written book after book, and in a variety of genres and on a variety of topics.
“I don’t think there could have been a better way for me to retire,” Koplen said. “I’m kind of busier than ever… now that I’m doing the writing in a semi-professional form.”
Koplen’s family name has been synonymous with Danville for decades. For over a century, Abe Koplen Clothing served the community at the family’s store on Union Street, the same building where Barry writes his stories each day.
Barry grew up in his family’s store while his father, Albert, ran the business. Later, Barry’s daughters, Mary and Cara, grew up the same way.
Today, Mary is a hospice rabbi in New York, and Cara lives in Israel. Both hold tightly to the lessons passed down through generations of the Koplen family.
“What I found is, if you hold on to the desire, eventually something will click,” he said.
Koplen has written dozens of books in the 10 years since he sold the family business, in an astonishing variety of genres, from tales documenting an alien encounter (Why Won’t They Believe Me? Close Encounter) to fantastic tales (My Dad: A Man From Outer Space) to mysteries (Kissology, Escape) to collections of poems (Briefly, Sarah Smiled) to heavily researched historic documents such as Why the Last Capitol of the Confederacy Became a Capitol Attraction and 510 Spring Street.
Koplen has chronicled the revitalization of Danville heavily, partly because of his desire to tell a story, and partly because of his connection to the downtown business community.
“The books that I’ve written about the revitalization of downtown Danville have been a joy for me to write,” he said. “It was not a leap.”
His latest collection is a bit of a step out, however. Seldom Paired is another collection of monologues and poetry, which he’s done before, but this time, Koplen has teamed with an artist, Dotti Stone of Bedford, to put their works together into a blending of art and word to create a unique collage that is seldom seen.
“When you look in the book, you’ll see that many of the pages have her mosaics and (my) poetry,” Koplen said. “It’s been a wonderful experience because she’s so talented and just a brilliant mind. It’s been a delight to cooperate with someone like that.”
Koplen, an avid photographer, contributed photos and other ideas, and Stone would often create a mosaic based on those images or Koplen’s words, or vice versa.
“She had a lot of my poetry and pictures,” Koplen said, and Stone often would ask Koplen to write a poem based on a work of his. “Mostly, it was me relating my poetry to her images,” he added.
“We worked nonstop for hours and hours each day for four months or so,” Koplen said. “What we produced was enough for two books.”
In fact, a sequel to Seldom Paired is already in the works. The two also are going to collaborate on an exhibit at the Bower Center for the Arts in Bedford, where Stone is the Exhibits Manager.
“We’ve been using her catalog,” Koplen said. “It’s been interesting.”
Stone, who has never taken part in a project like this, said she didn’t expect the collaboration to take off like it has. Especially since the process for Seldom Paired mainly involved her working from Bedford while Koplen was in Danville, and the two communicating primarily via email.
“We were rarely physically in the same place together,” Stone said. “I thought It was an interesting idea, (but) I had no idea it was going to go where it went.”
Like Koplen, Stone said she was intrigued by the idea of working directly with an artist from another discipline. And like Koplen, she’s been grateful for the experience and the inspiration that comes from their collaboration.
“This is crossing disciplines, which makes it much more interesting, and opens up so many more opportunities to different things,” she said.
With the Seldom Paired series finished, Koplen said he has no plans to slow down soon. Next, he plans to work on a collection of poems he wrote based on his experiences before, during and after having undergone open heart surgery a few years ago. It was a time in his life where he said he would literally have been days from death had he not had the surgery. “That level of turmoil inspires a great deal of emotion to come out in one’s writing,” he said.
“It was such a remarkable experience,” Koplen said of the ordeal. “Emotionally, a lot of times, it’s really daunting.”
Experiences like that continue to inspire a man who has seen virtually everything in Danville through the years. From his experience as a young Jewish boy to his time as a student, teacher, business owner, father, and leader, Barry Koplen continues to live out one of the best pieces of advice he was given so many years ago.
“Write every day.”