Open the cover of any great book, and a new world awaits — maybe a little mysterious, perhaps a bit thrilling and almost certainly filled with interesting tales. Open the door of Duttenhofer’s Books, and much the same unfolds.
Nestled along a busy stretch of McMillan Avenue in Clifton Heights, just a block from the University of Cincinnati campus, the shop offers a world of used, old, sometimes rare, often quirky books. Stepping through the independent store’s front door, book lovers are enveloped in a sensory-rich world, with the one-of-a-kind smell of thousands of old books, some dating back more — sometimes much more — than 100 years; the sound of classical music in the air; the sight of shelf after shelf stacked with potential treasures.
Duttenhofer’s has occupied the same spot on McMillan for decades — it moved in its early years from another small location just down the block — and has been witness to countless changes not only in the neighborhood but in the entire landscape of how people purchase and consume information and stories.
The store recently turned the page on a new chapter, marking its 40th anniversary. It hasn’t always been easy, said owner Kim Steinsiek, a lifelong book lover who immerses herself in Jane Austen, George Eliot, Franz Kafka and countless other favorites. A longtime Duttenhofer’s employee, she became only the third owner — geography professor Stan Duttenhofer opened the shop in 1976 — when she bought the store from owner Russell Speidel five years ago.
“It’s absolutely fantastic to make it to our 40th anniversary and my five years of ownership,” Steinsiek said. “Everything from here on out is icing on the cake.”
Whether Duttenhofer’s will make it another 40 years, or even another five, is a tale that will just have to play itself out, given the economic realities of operating a used bookstore in this digital era. Steinsiek embraced the importance of digital in book sales early, getting Duttenhofer’s into online sales in the late 1990s. Selling in-store as well as online are equally critical to remaining solvent, she said, and the store does business on every one of the many online book sites available, from Amazon on down.
It’s a tricky gambit that requires constant research and vigilance to make sure the numbers make sense. Typically, for example, it costs a store like Duttenhofer’s 25 percent to 30 percent of a book’s sale price for insertion and other fees from the online purveyors.
Whatever it takes, Steinsiek works to make sure the books find new homes rather than ending up in a landfill. She has likened the process to finding a good home for a shelter animal that just needs to be loved and protected.
“I worry about the books. Even libraries are getting rid of old books,” she said. “The Cincinnati Art Museum just got rid of (many) older books. The UC library is no longer accepting used books.”
Still, there is plenty of reason for hope. For one, the changes in the landscape have brought the community of book lovers closer together. And Duttenhofer’s gets its share of young adults who come through the door, often saying, “My Dad used to bring me here!” There might be a smaller number of people who care about older books these days, Steinsiek said, but the ones who do care deeply.
Among them is Larry Jost, a professor of philosophy at UC who has been a regular since Duttenhofer’s opened its doors and visits once or twice every month, exploring and snapping up titles in philosophy, the classics, art, literature, history, politics and poetry. One of his most treasured finds was the full set of the Scholar’s Edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1911 or 1912.
“It’s very important the way Kim keeps the collection fresh, keeps buying things,” he said. “She’s a real book lover. It’s nice to be able to talk to a book-store owner about books and ideas instead of just prices.”
For tattoo artist Chris Savage, owner of Blackbird Tattoo in Northside, visiting Duttenhofer’s is an escape, a chance to step out of the everyday world. He visits often, poking through shelves for anything that grabs him, from old magazines and art prints to vintage postcards and photography books. Among his favorite finds have been two antique collector catalogs with ornate illustrations of swords, armor and other objects, as well as a book of Japanese woodblock prints with a surprise inside — two tickets to a long-ago opera in Toyko left behind by a previous book owner.
“Duttenhofer’s is one of the remaining rich, local, old-world pieces that has survived in that neighborhood,” Savage said.
Like Savage, Michael Raush considers stepping into Duttenhofer’s a nice escape. And it’s a good thing, since he spends most weekends there, happily shelving books and pitching in where needed. A paid employee years ago while a grad student, these days he’s a volunteer. His wife, Steinsiek, relies on the help of a small cadre of friends and family, since the economics of running the place no longer support a staff.
“There’s an old joke: How do you make a small fortune with an independent bookstore?” Rausch jokes. “Start with a large fortune.”
Indeed, said Steinsiek, it just wouldn’t work if Rausch didn’t love it too, and it absolutely has to be a labor of love. Happily, it is. There’s no matching the satisfaction of finding a new home for a lovely Shakespeare edition, for example, with a portrait of the bard hand-painted on ivory. Or watching a young woman walk out last week thrilled with a 100-year-old copy of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in hand that she landed for a mere $20.
Even Steinsiek can’t say how many more chapters are left in Duttenhofer’s story. But so long as she can keep uniting book lovers with old books that have plenty of life left in them, it has been a story worth telling.
See for yourself