Gretchen (Jordan) ’93 and Peter Menzies ’93
At Little Joe’s Coffee & Books, the sounds of the barista machine whirl, a menu board boasts enticing soups like Senegalese chicken, and the bookshelves are chock-full of carefully chosen must-reads. Owners Gretchen (Jordan) ’93 and Peter Menzies ’93 have grounds for excitement as they begin their second year running the bustling shop, nestled in the quaint town of Katonah, N.Y.
Accompanied by their sons Brody and Tucker, they take me to their office across the street, where they’re about to expand their vision. Gathered around a table, the family tells me how they began this new chapter in their lives when they bought Little Joe’s from Jennifer Cook ’82 last year.
As Westchester County residents for 17 years, the Menzieses have been heavily involved in the community, including Little Joe’s. Tucker (age 14) interned there as a book seller when he was 12. Brody (age 12) was in the kids’ book club. And Gretchen advertised the bookstore on her blog. When Cook announced that she was selling, Gretchen told Peter that they should buy it. “What do we know about bookstores?” he responded. “What don’t we know about bookstores?” she quipped. “We’re book people.” They met the next morning with Cook, who accepted their offer soon after.
The timing was propitious. Peter was looking for a new opportunity after co-owning a gourmet market that had gained attention from the likes of Martha Stewart and chef Jean-Georges. Previously, Peter had spent 16 years as an MTV producer, but the station’s switch to reality TV–dominated programming “didn’t interest me,” he said. Also, it “started getting dangerous,” Gretchen interjected, like “he went to record-release house parties where people were carrying guns.” Peter finished the thought: “It wasn’t worth any sort of risk.” Hence, the career move from music television to manchego.
Gretchen, meanwhile, was a social worker for 10 years before they had children. She then created a parenting website, Essentialmom.com, filling a void in Westchester County.
Little Joe’s grand opening on Dec. 4, 2013, began a chaotic Christmas season. They’d inherited a full staff and a small inventory but had to get up to speed on running a bookstore. And all of them — including their staff — were sick as dogs. “Mom couldn’t even get out of bed on Christmas day,” recalled Brody. “Just happy the place didn’t burn down,” added Peter. Yet, Gretchen said genuinely, “It was a blast.”
After the season ended, they started adding their personal touches, renovating both floors, and increasing the inventory. Gretchen hand picks toys to pair with children’s books as gifts — she took on the bookstore business, from story time to social media and marketing. Peter handles the coffee shop (even making the soups), and chooses the cookbooks. The boys help out, too: cashing out customers, making cappuccino. Brody and a group of his schoolmates (four of whom are Colgate chips) help pick the young adult novels. “Books are racy these days,” Gretchen explained, “so parents want help navigating through what they’re letting their kids read.” Such customized care — and the shop local movement — enable the independent bookstore to flourish in a time of “Amazonification.”
“I feel like my whole career leading up to this point has made it a good fit,” said Gretchen. She has advertised for every store owner on the block on Essentialmom.com, and she’s built a rapport with local moms who have used her parenting resources for the last 10 years. Also, Gretchen uses some of her social work skills: with parents who come in for story time and companionship, regulars who ask her advice on raising teenagers, and newcomers to town who want the inside scoop.
As for Peter, he’s stretching his culinary creativity across the street. At press time, the couple was working on their sequel: The Reading Room, a café and gourmet market in Katonah’s first library, which was built in the 1850s.
“This is a great way to keep us together,” Gretchen said. “While this is a passion for us, it has a benefit of being something that allows us to be with [our kids] and include them,” Peter concluded.
— Story and photo by Aleta Mayne