A woman with grey hair, glasses, and a bright blue t-shirt sits in a chair between two bookshelves. Her legs are crossed and she's holding an open book in her lap as she smiles at the camera.
Ellen Eckhouse, 57, owns The Village Bookstore, along main street in Garrettsville. “I think if you want to start fixing the things in our country, reading is a good place to start,” Eckhouse said. Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

Garrettsville’s indie bookstore celebrates 15 years

For the past 15 years, Ellen Eckhouse of the Village Bookstore in Garrettsville has offered book lovers from all over Portage County a warm welcome, lively conversation and personalized book recommendations. The bookstore has continued as a local landmark, surviving the 2014 Garrettsville fire that burned down several small businesses just across the street and is now persevering through the Covid-19 crisis.

The opportunity to begin the Village Bookstore came back in 2005 when Eckhouse’s husband and his business partner bought the building. When they asked her if she wanted to open a bookstore in the empty space below their office, Eckhouse’s response was, “Of course, who doesn’t?”

What Eckhouse modestly describes as an old-fashioned used book store is a townhouse sitting at the southeast end of Garrettsville’s Main Street. On hot days, Eckhouse will open up the back door, and you can hear the Silver Creek waterfall, which flows just behind the shop.

Peering in the window, you can see books of all types filling shelves and piling up in stacks on any nearby surface, giving it the delightful appearance of an overgrown literary garden. One customer described being in awe of “the boldness of the chaos” of Eckhouse’s bookshelves.

The pandemic has affected her business, just like it has so many others. Still, Eckhouse says she is thankful to the local community and a group of dedicated customers for keeping the bookstore going.

“March was bad,” she told me in an interview earlier this summer. “But I put out a call on Facebook, and my customers really stepped up. They said, ‘We’re home, we need books.’” During the worst of the shutdown, Eckhouse took book orders and made book suggestions over Facebook Messenger. If she found a book her customer liked, she’d leave it out on her front step.

Because of the Village Bookstore’s narrow aisles and limited space, Eckhouse still doesn’t allow customers into the shop, but she has continued serving her clientele by using a book takeout window. Anyone interested in a book can come up to the Village Bookstore’s front door and ask for a stack of books on a specific topic or in a particular style. If you don’t find a book you like, Eckhouse will happily bring you another stack of books to go through.

Carter Eugene Adams/The Portager

“The fun part is matching up people with their books,” she said.

Her attention to detail and willingness to chat at length on any subject means that often Eckhouse is treated as a type of book concierge, leading her customers to books they didn’t even know they would enjoy.

“Ellen knows us very well, and has kept track of my kids’ changing tastes,” said Tom Koenhle, a professor at Hiram College and frequent Village Bookstore customer. “She never fails to inform me or them when something of interest has arrived. More than once, her oddball collections have gotten our family started into a new series or collection.”

“She has an uncanny ability to fairly quickly figure out what type of reader you are,” said Gail Hazard of Hiram. “So when you go in and you’re not even sure what you want, she’ll have a book set aside with you in mind. And nine times out of 10, she’s right on the money.”

Eckhouse credited her older brother with the early notion to open a bookstore. “He always had all these collections, and I was so jealous. I wanted a collection, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to collect.” Later on, she discovered the novel Little Women, which led to a Louisa May Alcott book collection, which led to a general desire to collect all kinds of books.

Last month, Eckhouse marked the Village Bookstore’s 15th anniversary alone. While she had hoped to have a party or a get-together or even just an open house, it ended up being impossible given the uptick in Covid-19 infections at the time.

The Village Bookstore’s lifespan has coincided with the rise of Amazon, which has devastated all kinds of local storefronts that used to populate America’s streets. However, Eckhouse’s customers have faith that the Village Bookstore will always have an edge over online stores.

“Conversation. Understanding. Empathy,” Hazard said. “You get a very personal feel that these big box stores can’t provide.”

For Deb Defer, a Garrettsville native, the bookstore gives her things a book-suggestion algorithm can’t. “Ellen is always open with a suggestion of a book for me. She’s really broadened my mind as far as reading books outside of my comfort zone.”

For her part, Eckhouse says she has no big plans for the Village Bookstore in the future. “I just want to keep my little bookstore until I’m a cranky old lady.”

Until then, she wants readers to know that the Village Bookstore is offering books for takeout and delivery and limited shopping by appointment. Just don’t ask her when she’ll be open. “I do not have regular hours and probably won’t until Covid is better.”

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Richie Koch is a Portager contributor.