By Jean Sheff
You know her magazine, Inside Chappaqua (IC). You’ve probably seen her around town, picking up coffee, having lunch with a friend, or visiting her sponsors with “hot off the press” editions of IC. But who really “is” Grace Bennett?
“Well, I’m really kind of a ham and I like to make people laugh,” Grace smiled. She’s not just talking about friendly conversation, either; Grace studied acting in her 20s (“You know, in the 1990s?” she quipped) at Manhattan’s Lee Strasberg School and has studied locally with Rachel Jones of the Howard Meyer Acting Program. At one point, she appeared as the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz by Music in Chappaqua and the Saw Mill Summer Theater Group. She enjoys free nights out supporting local arts and musicians and finds karaoke “a great outlet” too.
With the demands of her company, “The Inside Press, Inc.,” ever present, Grace said she has placed any theatrical yearnings on perhaps a permanent hold. Yet, during publication crunch time, her “on with the show” drive is still evident. Just as at any major publishing house in NYC or elsewhere, everyone works nonstop during the two weeks before an issue goes to press. But Grace runs the operation as a “single mom shop,” juggling the publication of IC with raising two children: Anna, now a college junior, and Ari, a Greeley junior, sharing custody with her ex-husband, Neil. “My rule has always been that pre press, I only stop to feed the kids,” she laughed.
Her office is a sunny den off of the living room–a study of organized disorganization. “I produce the magazine out of my home, a perfectly comfortable condo at Old Farm Lake right here in town, a great modern day arrangement,” Grace noted. While her doors may not be technically “open” to the public, Grace is an exceptionally accessible and approachable publisher.
For and by the Community
Contrary to what some might think, publishing IC is a full-time job and how Grace earns a living too. “The magazine is quite solvent, thank you very much,” said Grace, who relies on a small part-time staff and freelance contributors to get each issue to print.
For the magazine’s first four years, Grace built up the house accounts together with Sales Associate Giselle St. Vincent, a former accountant and also a Chappaqua mom. Lisa Salerno, a graphic designer in Croton-on-the-Hudson, created many of the first ads and prepared the magazine’s pages. Over the years, other sales representatives also helped filled the advertising space, the backbone of any publication.
In more recent years, Grace, together with the assistance of a “wonderful, right hand” part time associate editor Carine Feist, tracks the accounts from issue to issue. Dina Spalvieri, of Kent, CT, is her current designer, and Annette van Ommeren, is in charge of web maintenance and design.
“The magazine was lucky to have built an early strong base of a variety of house accounts,” said Grace. She and Carine do seek out new advertisers, and word of mouth helps too. Readers, she told me, love to see their favorite merchants represented in the magazine. In the meantime, contributors to the magazine seem to universally love their association with Grace.
“First as a writer, and then as Grace’s associate for the past four years, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with her every day,” said Carine, whose husband Arnie and son Mike too have pitched in with everything from tech support to picture taking and additional editing. “She is incredibly bright, witty, caring, generous, always has a smile, and she routinely gives a big thank you to all those who work with her. In addition to being the very best boss and colleague one could ever imagine, she is a true friend.”
Dina Spalvieri weighed in equally effusively: “We have developed not only a great business relationship, but a friendship as well. I call her ChappaQueen or CQ!”
“I am so proud and fortunate to be working with her and have a blast doing it,” continued Dina. “The work is very intense at times, but we always manage to find time to have some fun and a few laughs.”
“I’ve worked with Grace for almost five years and have found her to be a unique combination of real person and genuine professional,” said frequent contributor Vicki de Vries. “She has strong opinions and welcomes yours. There’s always a wonderful give-and-take with Grace.”
Longtime IC editor/writer Debra Hand, who met Grace on the “mom circuit” a decade ago, recalled that “Grace roped me in as a contributor from that very first issue. She had a phenomenal vision–and I respect the gumption it took to singlehandedly create a town publication and fill a void,” she added.
IC reader Karla Shepard Rubinger graciously provided feedback too. “Inside Chappaqua has helped build community,” she said. “It helps us connect to the wonderful pieces of Chappaqua we might not otherwise see. It covers the famous and the everyday; the worldwide and the local; the young and the old, things to think about and things to do.”
Generous Merchant Support
Her clients are quick to spot the publisher’s strengths. The real estate community, in particular, has been steadfast in their support: “Grace Bennett: clever, smart, sassy, soulful, warm, go-getter,” stated Sena Baron of William Raveis Real Estate.
“With the broad access to information and media today, Inside Chappaqua brings relevant news to our local community in a unique way,” related Barry Graziano, Brokerage Manager at Houlihan Lawrence Real Estate. “Grace Bennett has been an integral part in creating this voice, as it speaks directly to the needs, passions, and interests of everyone throughout the area.”
“In a very positive way, Grace revived the community,” stated Varda Singer, owner of ICD Contemporary Jewelry. “She reconnected the town, neighbors, businesses and community. Most people here are isolated even in this new era of gadgets and the Internet. People get off and on the train and go to their homes. We are all fortunate that she created Inside Chappaqua. Hope she continues for many more years.”
Perhaps some of that drive and gumption is the result of being the child of Holocaust survivors. “Children born to traumatized survivors develop a unique perspective,” said Grace. “It instilled a work ethic and the concept that as a person you have a legacy to uphold,” she continued, “so I became a survivor by default.”
Grace’s parents met in Israel after World War II and emigrated to the U.S. in 1957. Grace was born in Detroit, Michigan, but the family soon settled in Washington Heights, New York City, a high crime precinct. “Washington Heights was a challenging place to grow up in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she related, which perhaps also added to her mettle.
Though she may have “made it” in a life odyssey from Washington Heights to Chappaqua, Grace’s roots propelled her to become a good friend to the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains. “They actually discovered me,” she said. “Longtime Chappaqua resident Richard Laster encouraged me to get involved.” At first, Grace was on the advisory board, but for the last two years has served on the Board of Directors.
Board Chairperson David Alpert sings her praises. “Grace is fantastic; she has helped us by informing the public about our needs and gets excited about helping, too, on top of putting out a high quality publication. I don’t know when she sleeps,” he wondered.
Being a Chappaqua mom herself keeps her “in the know” and naturally supportive of school district and community charitable organizations. Her generosity and good citizen stance has her regularly assigning articles about virtually every public service organization in the area, including “save the dates” on her covers, or acting as a sponsor for benefits, including ones this year for the Chappaqua School Foundation and for Evan’s Team. During Sandy, Grace’s social media updates via her early contact with Town Hall were highly valued as was an “emergency gift” to the Food Bank of Westchester.
Grace explained she gets things done by making quick decisions. She trusts her instincts.“I can ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ a story in five seconds, but I like to say yes more than I say no,” she said. Despite her drive, Grace admitted to being sensitive and vulnerable at times. “I’ve developed a somewhat thicker skin, but I still have that need and want for people to like me. I realize, however, that not everyone will. That’s part of what goes with being publisher,” she added.
A Surprised Entrepreneur
Grace never imagined herself as a self-employed businesswoman. She attended the Bronx High School of Science and Boston University and later the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. This led her to work at newspapers and magazines, most notably Woman’s Day, McCalls and Sesame Parents. She recalled that her loftiest goal had been to get as far up the masthead as possible. Momhood took her off the track.
In 2002, with her family needing a solid second income, Grace embarked on a serious New York City job hunt, but found she “wasn’t happy about taking on a full-time job again in New York City publishing.” She explored other options including a career transition to law or teaching. While teaching reading to kindergartners at the Westorchard Elementary School, she missed journalism and the idea of being her own boss started brewing.
For advice and support, she tapped local successful businesswomen, including buddy Jodi Levine, owner of Jodi’s Gym, who encouraged her from the start.
“Grace and I go back quite some time. I knew she had the journalism expertise, the energy, the work ethic and the many talents it would take to launch what has become such a jewel for Chappaqua residents.”
Jodi stated that on many long walks together, Grace talked about her ideas for IC, but also expressed some fears about such an ambitious undertaking. “I let her know how fun and exciting it would be to have a business to call her own. I am very proud of her and have been a supporter of her from the very first issue….In fact, Jodi’s Gym has not missed one issue in ten years!”
Co-Communications owner Stacey Cohen was impressed with her passion, knowledge and drive. “I recall when Grace came to my office 10 years ago to discuss the launch of Inside Chappaqua. We discussed publishing, the local media environment, the virtues of business ownership and more,” Stacey recollected. “I knew that Grace had the “it” factor starting a new business requires.”
Highs and Lows
Not that there haven’t been challenges along the way. First there was her mom’s passing. After that, separation and divorce… And then the economic recession hit just as Grace was launching her next big idea–Single and Smart, a magazine positioning itself to be a source of advice and tips for singles in Westchester. The economy bottomed out just as the first edition went to press, but she still got it off the ground. It was a sobering experience to say the least. “My June ’10 issue took a big financial hit too and I concluded I really am not Superwoman or Rupert Murdoch,” she noted, vowing that it wouldn’t happen again. She jumped ship but also quickly integrated Single and Smart as a regular, rotating department in the magazine and on insidechappaqua.com.
Fortunately, there have been many more “highs,” culminating in an extraordinary trip last summer. Back in 2006, Grace sat down in Lange’s Deli to interview then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton before Clinton marched in the town Memorial Day parade, a tradition for Clinton since she arrived in Chappaqua. “Little did I know that six years later this interaction would lay the groundwork of establishing all important trust,” said Grace.
In May 2012, Grace again ran into then-Secretary of State Clinton before the Memorial Day parade and, with her usual gumption, asked for another interview. When Clinton regretfully told Grace that her travel schedule left her with little time for a local interview, Grace joked, “then you’ll just have to take me with you.” Incredibly, before she knew it, Grace was added to Clinton’s press corps and on a plane heading to Africa and Turkey to share news of the historic trip with the Secretary’s hometown readers.
Grace laughed when asked about her relationship with Clinton. While she would love to be “best friends,” Clinton already has a tight circle that surrounds her. I do like to think we have a professional relationship.” And she holds out hope that one day she can also have former President Bill Clinton on IC’s cover.
Loyal IC readers might enjoy meeting Grace (that is, if you haven’t yet), at the Chappaqua Library in June. She is scheduled to talk about last summer’s travels with Hillary Clinton on June 12 at 7 p.m. “I’ll be open to any and all questions both about that and about the magazine in general.” Stay tuned for a reminder in the May and/or June issue.
Onward: A 21st Century Publication
Grace does not only champion human rights around the globe; friends and associates say she is a champion for her peers as well. She is supportive of her contributors, and wants to see them succeed “whether they are contributing to IC as a springboard for other opportunities or enjoying a regular gig.”
Grace has also reached across generations, inviting local “cub reporters” to take the reins of IC’s September/October 2011 issue. HGHS junior Lindsay Hand, a frequent IC contributor who served as Guest Editor-in-Chief (and writer) of that issue, said that she and her fellow Class of 2014 staffers were incredibly grateful for the invaluable experience that Grace provided. “The community was so supportive of that student-driven issue that Grace has generously asked us to produce a second issue this fall as we enter our last year at Greeley,” she said.
Grace said she also experiences joy when her sponsors prosper. And they, in turn, have enjoyed supporting her–from the very first issue. Grace recalled too that Bill Holmes, at the time head of Prudential Holmes and Kennedy, provided business advice that included a “good number” for a mailing and the tip to add a “value” to the cover of the magazine even if it was being mailed free. Today, Bill’s son, now Douglas Elliman Real Estate broker Ted Holmes, noted that “It’s good to see the magazine thrive in an age when technology is threatening print. Its coverage is relevant and a good resource for the community.”
Grace continues to move forward, in print and online. Last year, she increased her mailing from 6,000 to 10,000 area residences, so IC now reaches many more residents in Armonk and Briarcliff Manor too. Very involved with social media, Grace is delighted that IC has some 1700 “Likes” on Facebook which she links to her Twitter and LinkedIn accounts.
While the magazine continues to be mailed free of charge to residents, print subscriptions are always welcome. And readers do send in their dollars from time to time, either voluntarily to support a print publication or as a gift. “I gave my parents a subscription so they could keep up with what the town and their grandchildren were up to–they love reading it!” said Lisa Jacobson of Chappaqua.
Longtime “Rick’s Last Licks” humor contributor Rick Reynolds perhaps summed it up best: “Somehow, through all the uncertainty of life, politics and publishing, Grace has landed on her feet; a testament to her determination, her loyal business patrons, and her readership.”
Jean Sheff is an editor, writer, and long time contributor and huge fan of Inside Chappaqua.