For two years, Jeff Singer collected the stories behind the bench plaques on Long Beach's boardwalk -- curious about the short notes that captured the memories of a loved one.
Yesterday, more than 250 people came to the Long Beach Hotel to see the culmination of Singer's work -- a spiral-bound book with 150 stories, of 200 words each, of the people and friendships behind the plaques.
"I'm 70 years old, and I've done a lot in life trying to help people. This means the most," said the former teacher, who calls himself the "Bench Mench."
Singer, of Oceanside, collected the stories after gathering a plaque list from the City of Long Beach and reaching out to families and friends. He also relied on word-of-mouth.
"The benches, and this book, are the story of Long Beach," said Harvey Weisenberg, an assemblyman from Long Beach, who himself has four benches dedicated to friends and families.
When superstorm Sandy destroyed the boardwalk, Singer said it was the "lowest point" in the project. But it also made the book even more urgent. "I knew it had to be done," Singer said. "Long Beach will not take another defeat."
Long Beach officials said many of the 722 benches with plaques are in storage while the boardwalk is repaired, but would be put back in the fall, when work is completed. Most of the plaques and benches were recovered after Sandy and those that weren't will be replaced, said Long Beach Council vice president Fran Adelson.
Singer said, "They're going to be back where they belong, or there'll be a riot in Long Beach."
Jerry Mackay, 53, of Rockville Centre, said the bench dedicated to his wife Elizabeth after her death in 2001 "is a sacred place."
He equated it in importance to his wife's gravestone, as a place to take his daughters, who were 4 and 6 years old when their mother died at age 39.
Not all of the plaques are in memory of departed loved ones. Margaret Sears of Howard Beach, Deborah Piera of Oceanside and Theresa Moffa of Island Park were among a group of nine childhood friends who got a plaque 10 years ago when they turned 40. It reads: "Forty and Fabulous Forever."
"This," Sears said, "is our piece of oceanfront property."
Singer, in between long lines of people waiting for him to sign a copy of the book, said he might work on a second version, if another 150 stories come to him.
Each family or friend who responded to Singer's call for the stories behind the bench plaques has a single page in the book, called Reflections. There are also pictures of all 722 plaques, taken by photographer Atom Lark.
Of the 600 books printed, about 500 were sold Sunday, for $27 each to those "Bench-Menchers" whose stories are included, or $30 for the general public. Profits will be donated to storm recovery charities, said Elinore Brown, the book's designer.