Sister Bay’s Passtimes Books – “Reading” a Door County Community for Three Decades

Passtimes Books and the Grutzmacher family have always held a special place in my heart. At an age where most kids were playing in the sandbox and learning how to share, Marge Grutzmacher was teaching me how to read. The Grutzmacher’s lived just up the road from my grandmother’s Ephraim home, and I remember vividly skipping up the narrow hill of Spruce Lane and into their driveway, knocking on their door and asking Hal if his “girl could come out to play.” About fourteen years later, I would credit this same family with my lack of summer cash flow – against my better judgment, I took a summer job at Passtimes and ended up spending entire paychecks on stacks of books – some I still haven’t read.

Memorial Day weekend will mark Passtimes Books’ 30th anniversary, and I asked Marge Grutzmacher and her son Steve to reflect on the milestone. What follows is not only a story about a small independent bookstore, but a small independent bookstore educating and strengthening its community.

The Passtimes story starts in Ephraim, where it originally opened in a small cottage in front of Karsten and Ellen Topelmann’s Hanseatic Art Gallery. Before it was Passtimes, it was another bookstore owned by Loretta McKenna, and Marge was one of McKenna’s best customers. “I was in there constantly, and one day I said to Ellen, as a joke, ‘If Loretta decides not to renew her lease, you let me know.’” In February of 1978, Marge got a phone call from Ellen – saying that Loretta had not renewed her lease. Was Marge serious about running a bookstore in the cottage?

Marge was serious, if not a little crazy.

“I had three months to get a bookstore ready,” she explained. “I was a grade-school teacher at West Side School in Sturgeon Bay, and my husband Hal was a former college English professor. We both loved reading, and loved books. But running a bookstore? This was something we knew nothing about. This is where the term ‘ignorance is bliss” was completely applicable!”

But the combination of their professions proved to be a blessing. They purchased books from McKenna, Marge picked out the children’s literature that she enjoyed, and left the selection of the literature and fiction to Hal. By the time they opened, they had accrued a small, handpicked collection of books.

From the very beginning, Marge and Hal listened to the people that came into the store. “If they wanted it, we would try to get it,” Marge says. “We always listened to people.”

What people seemed to want were books on Door County.

“At the time that we opened, there were only about four Door County books that were still in print,” says Steve, who ran the bookstore for Marge and Hal upon graduating from college in 1979. But slowly, Door County books and authors increased.

“All these small presses started popping up – and unknown authors finally had an outlet for book publishing,” Marge says. Passtimes became known for stocking Door County books, and today the store offers over 130 titles about the Door County peninsula or by Door County authors.

Passtimes stayed in the Topelmann cottage about ten years, but the need for a year-round bookstore became evident – and Passtimes moved to Sister Bay. Once there, the store bounced around a bit in location – from one season in an apartment in the back of The Cove gift shop, to a place at the Walkway Shops, to their current location on Bay Shore Drive.

After “the apartment summer,” Steve left to work for a bookstore in Chicago, Kroch’s and Bentano’s, a large chain whose flagship store was on Wabash Avenue. He worked there for a bit and then took a part-time job at a smaller independent bookstore. “I didn’t work a lot, but I did make it to 56 out of 81 Cubs games that year!” he laughs. Both bookstores left an impression on him, and when he moved back to Door County in 1988 to manage Passtimes, he had a lot of ideas.

With all the work that Marge and Steve have both put into the store, it is impossible to speak about Passtimes without talking about Hal Grutzmacher, who passed away in May 1998. “Hal was born to own a bookstore,” laughs Marge. “He was a great professor, but most people who came in didn’t even know he had a PhD. He was just a regular guy – he could give you a ‘college lecture’ on just about anything, and he loved to talk sports. A customer would come into the store with a Bulls or a Cubs shirt on, and he would just start in with them.”

His death was a blow to the Door County community. “People would walk in and say, ‘where’s the guy?’” Marge says. “When I told them that ‘the guy’ had passed away, they had to leave the store just so they could compose themselves. People were convinced that no one else in the store would be able to discuss books the way that Hal had. It was a hard transition at first.”

However, being able to “discuss books” is something that Passtimes continues to be good at.

“There is not a book in this store that hasn’t been read by one of us who works in the store, or by someone that we know,” says Steve. “My wife gives us reviews on historical novels, I give children’s literature to kids I know and tell them to report back to me about it.”

“Bookselling is educating – and being able to offer recommendations, knowing what your customers read so you can suggest something similar – that’s what makes it so fun,” Marge adds.

Marge also says it’s rewarding to see a former student of hers come into the bookstore, or generations that have shopped in Passtimes for years.

“A few years ago, a former student I had in first grade stopped in to buy Where the Wild Things Are,” she said. “He and his wife were having a baby, and he wanted to buy it from me. I had read it to his class and he told me that book was what made him want to learn how to read on his own.” And if they don’t have it, no worries – you can still order it.

“We do a great deal of special ordering,” Steve says. “It actually benefits us – when someone orders a book, it often piques our interest.”

With all of the rewards that come with owning an independent bookstore, both Marge and Steve admit that there have been some intense challenges throughout the years. “Obviously, large-scale bookstores like Barnes & Noble and internet retailers such as have impacted not just our sales, but sales of independent bookstores across the country,” Steve says.

Also, the county’s demographics have changed.

“Families used to come up for weeks at a time and purchase books from us,” says Marge. “Now, they come for a weekend and bring all of their reading materials with them. It’s much different than it was when we first opened.”

Independent bookstores around the county have experienced the same problems, but a national marketing initiative, Booksense, has done much to help independent bookstores gain recognition. The program was created to shine a light on the knowledge and diversity of independent bookstores via the “Booksense Bestseller List,” which runs in more than a dozen newspapers across the country, and “Booksense Picks” – a monthly selection of new books chosen by independent booksellers. Steve has had many of his own reviews and suggestions published in Booksense, and says its credibility lies in its exclusivity.

“Publishers can’t buy their way onto the list,” he says. “They can just send a copy of the book and hope there’s enough nominations for it.”

Marge is quick to point out one reason for Passtimes’ success. “Door County businesses have a responsibility to their community, and we try to do the best we can to support ours.” Passtimes gives a 10 percent discount to teachers, and offers schools 20 percent off purchase orders. Also, because a child’s first teacher is its family, Passtimes created “Books for Babies” in 1989. Passtimes supplies a board book for every new baby born at the Door County Memorial Hospital, and literacy packets to accompany the books are put together by the Door County Extension office.

“We have to adapt and find our niche,” Steve says. “It’s for that reason that I don’t like to overlap a lot with other bookstores here. I have an interest in seeing every well-run business in Door County do well. They’re working just as hard as I am.”

Passtimes Books, located at 10653 Bay Shore Drive in Sister Bay, is open at 10 am year-round. Besides stocking an eclectic selection of new and backlist titles, books for children and young adults, and books about Door County and from Door County authors, Passtimes also offers greeting cards, wooden games, toys, puzzles, and CDs by Door County musicians. For more information call 920.854.2127.