By Mallory Gruben
The Daily News, Longview, Wash.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Jennifer Engkraf’s leap of faith to open a bookstore/coffee shop in downtown Castle Rock led to a period of rising action in the entire downtown Castle Rock business community.
Jennifer Engkraf opened her combined bookstore and coffee shop in a historic bank building at a time when most business in downtown Castle Rock had a short life expectancy.
She “knew in her heart” she could run a successful book store when she opened Vault Books and Brew in June 2016. Almost 8% of the storefronts around her were empty, and Engkraf wondered if there would be enough foot traffic to prosper.
“We had a couple of days when we’d barely break $100,” she said.
Fast forward three and a half years, and the Vault’s annual book sales have increased 40%, Engkraf said. The shop sells thousands of drinks every week, hosts a slew of events annually and is open seven days a week.
Business owners say the Vault’s opening marked a period of rising action in the downtown business community, spurred largely by a years-long city effort to improve appearance and “quality of place.” New shops continued to open after the bookstore, and the majority of them still operate today.
“We were sort of an anchor. … I feel like new businesses might be more comfortable opening a store here when they see a community hub, a floral store, a tap house,” said Engrakf, referencing Pollen Floral Works, which opened in 2017, and Crosscut Taphouse, which opened last year.
Renovating streets and sidewalks on Cowlitz and Front streets were a key part of attracting long-term business tenants, said Mayor Paul Helenberg.
“The uptick in the whole town was when we redid the streets. … You saw people wanting to invest in town because they could see we were doing stuff,” he said. The town’s eight-year participation with America in Bloom, a national floral beautification contest also boosted enthusiasm.
“As downtown visually began to improve, then investors began to invest in properties to make those (renovations),” said Nancy Chennault, Castle Rock Community Development Alliance board member. “Growth starts out slow, but what you want to see is a continual uptick and positivity.”
Jana Gann, who’s owned a craft store downtown for the last five years, said she watched as “boom, boom, boom” new stores started cropping up.
“The improvements made you want to be down here and shop down here. … Then building owners made spots nice, and it attracted new businesses in,” Gann said.
A major, privately financed renovation in 2015 at 6 Cowlitz St. prompted Greener Futures, an electrical contractor company, to open in the nearly 5,000-square-foot storefront. The Vault opened about 10 months after that, bringing a “community hub” downtown.
“It attracts a lot of tourists and locals. The Vault is such a nice place to go in and relax, drink a cup of coffee,” Helenberg said.
The bookstore and coffee shop drew people downtown, and Engkraf worked hard to sell a quality product to make them return customers.
“Once you get people through the door, they will definitely come back. People here love it,” she said. “If I didn’t have the amount of foot traffic and sales I had, we’d be long upside down.”
Other businesses benefited from the boost in downtown traffic, too. Gann said she saw more young shoppers walking Cowlitz Street. She started offering youth classes at the Quilt Nest in part because of increased interest, she said.
As business owners continued to improve their shops, it attracted more customers, she said.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and seeing the changes makes you want to be down here and shop down here,” she said.
For Jason Vorse at Pollen Floral Works, Castle Rock’s business environment far surpassed his predictions. Vorse opened his florist shop in 2017 after a nearly two-decade career as a floral designer in California.
“We came with a fully developed business plan, but our goal posts were very low. It’s not that we had low expectations, but we were trying to be realistic about everything,” Vorse said. “Then we started surpassing those (goals) at a time frame way beyond our goal.”
Within six months, Pollen outgrew its space. Within eight, it relocated to a shop three times bigger. Even now, Vorse says the shop is “keeping on growing. We are still building.”
And their successes seem to be snowballing.
Eleven businesses opened or changed hands in the last year, and two other entrepreneurs sought space to open their own shops. The business vacancy rate has dropped to less than 3% this year.
“Even in the last couple of years, things have progressed,” Vorse said. “I always tell people we are growing up here in our small little town.”
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