Owner of Port shop says reports of the demise of books ignores trends
On the surface, it might seem that big-box retailers and online behemoth Amazon have already scripted the eulogy for small, independent bookstores.
In addition, it has been argued that the proliferation of handheld e-reader devices will soon make printed-word-on-paper books obsolete.
But the road to business success is often discovered by those who buck popular assumptions.
Ethan Hill, who has high hopes for his newly opened Craft Books & Brews shop in Port Washington, is in that camp.
The store is at 317 N. Franklin St., next door to the Pasta Shoppe.
Hill comes from a family of avid readers, but also had a long career in the investment field. He is not one to throw money away on a whim.
“My wife and I have been talking about starting a bookstore for a long time,” Hill said.
“I think the book market is changing. The sale of e-books has been flat or even down a little bit, but the sale of books remains strong. There are always cycles in the business world but the marketplace always finds a new equilibrium.”
Hill points to a study that shows there has been a 35% increase in the number of independent bookstores in the country since 2009. That trend has been described as a kind of backlash against global dealers like Amazon.
Open for three months, Hill said his shop caters to the buyer who appreciates dealing in-person with a fellow book lover.
“We can’t compete with stores like Target on price for things like the latest Harry Potter book. Instead, we attract customers who spend as much as an hour here, just talking books,” he said.
To make that time easier to savor, Hill recently started selling Stone Creek Coffee.
“We are not trying to compete with Java Dock or the Smith Bros. Coffeeshop. Our coffee is meant mostly as a convenience for customers who want to take their time here,” he said.
Far from being a mega-store, the shop carries only about 1,200 titles and has 1,500 books on its shelves, with a heavy emphasis on adult and juvenile fiction.
“We don’t carry a lot of duplicate titles. Once we sell a book, I order another one,” Hill said.
There is also a section by local writers, as well as books of regional interest.
“As it gets closer to the election, I expect there will be more interest in books on politics and history,” Hill said.
Whatever the store doesn’t have in stock, customers can order in-person or online and have it available within a day or two.
“The people in Port Washington seem to be mostly interested in fiction and are pretty knowledgeable about what authors they like,” Hill said.
“As I get to know the customers better, the books we carry will reflect what they want to see here.”
Hill was a literature major in college, but found those academic rigors left little time for recreational reading. That was also the case earlier in his professional life, when his focus was keeping up with trends in the financial market.
“With 300 or more books being published each week, the one thing I have to accept is that I can’t possibly read every book that comes out,” Hill said.
That’s where input from customers has proven invaluable.
Hill said he has also had great support from the staff at Port Washington’s Niederkorn Library, as well as local teachers. To encourage that open relationship, the store offers a 10% discount to educators.
The “craft” in the store’s name is an homage to the craft that is book writing, as well as the handmade crafts from around the country that Hill sells in the store.
Eventually, he said, he would also like to sell craft beers at the location.
Hill said it all comes down to the concept of “the new localism.”
“For a community to survive and thrive, we need to support each other. It affects how we treat each other,” he said.
“Since opening the store, I look at everyone differently. We live on the south side of Port, and I walk to work. One day, someone nearly hit me in the crosswalk. Instead of getting mad, I thought, ‘That might be a future customer.’ Life is different when you think of yourself as part of a community.”
Hill hopes to capitalize on that theme by making the bookstore a haven for local authors and artists. That will be helped along when the store hosts book signings and readings starting in fall.
“Our first couple months have exceeded our business plan, but I realize we are going to have to do more to appeal to our local customers after the tourist season is over,” he said.
Hill said part of the challenge will be to get a new audience familiar with the notion of what a bookstore is.
To give people a hint of what is available inside, the store often displays books outside the front door when it is open.
“I’ve heard kids walking by say to their parents, ‘Look, a library.’ They’ve never been inside a bookstore,” Hill said.
The store is open Tuesdays through Sundays.
Image Information: ETHAN HILL, OWNER Craft Books & Brews in Port Washington, took time to page through a new volume in his cozy but comfortable shop on North Franklin Street. Photo by Mark Jaeger