Most fishermen in search of truth sooner or later arrive at the Angler's Roost, a legendary hole-in-the-wall located at 141 East 44th Street in Manhattan. There, behind the rarest assortment of fishing tackle this side of Izaak Walton's attic, a fly-tying guru named Jim Deren sits and weaves his spell. The wandering angler simply utters a magic word: Miramichi perhaps, Marabou, Beaver Kill or Bass Bug, and the master is off on one of his soliloquies—in which philosophy, angling technique and wild reminiscence all play a part.
In an age of mass merchandising, Deren's priceless commodities are his knowledge and enthusiasm. But, since these are freely and generously given, one may wonder how they serve to pay the rent. The answer lies in the magnetic quality of Deren himself, which draws customers to the Roost as no hard-sell promotion ever could. Deren's Roost is to discerning anglers what the pro shop is to a golfer—a school and a sanctuary. Modern fishing tackle is a complex subject, and even experts need advice.
Take fly-fishing, an Angler's Roost specialty. Lines come in dozens of types and sizes, and good casting is impossible without the right one. Deren takes the customer's rod and a selection of lines home with him and solves the problem on the roof of his apartment building. There are hundreds of apartment dwellers in Manhattan's East 50s who must wonder what kind of a nut would spend his nights fly-casting up there.
Deren refuses to stock items he doesn't believe in. There is one very popular and rather expensive line of fly rods that he claims is quite second rate. He won't touch it. But he is no stuffy traditionalist. In the late '30s he became interested in a radically new fishing method, using reels that looked like eggbeaters. The purists sneered, but Deren held out, practically alone. Now 30 years later no one sneers at spinning tackle; it outsells all other kinds.
Deren's sense of humor is as unique as his business. About 15 years ago a Texas oil millionaire, jaded with fishing safaris all over the world, decided that Jim Deren just had to show him New York's famous Beaver Kill river. They left the Roost one day at rush hour, and about 20 minutes outside the city Deren pulled off the expressway. Heavy traffic, smog and cement abutments were all around. While the millionaire dozed off on the back seat, dreaming of crystal pools, Deren parked the car some 10 feet away from a slimy body of water called Sawmill Brook, two feet deep and generously stocked with mattresses and bicycles. He got out, pulled on his waders, grabbed his rod and jabbed the Texan awake. "O.K., all out, we're here," he shouted.
At his shop Deren is often too busy spinning such yarns to bother with the routine of business. This informality is one of the charms of the Angler's Roost. Outdoor Writer-Humorist Ed Zern once called it "the only shop in which the customers either wait on themselves or are waited on by other customers."
There are sound economic reasons for buying tackle at the Roost. There are others less tangible. Taped to a showcase is this Deren quote: "There don't have to be a thousand fish in a river; let me locate a good one and I'll get a thousand dreams out of him before I catch him—and, if I catch him, I'll turn him loose."