Like many ambitious dreamers who target the Hudson Valley as being the ideal place to live and work, Amanda and Anthony Stromoski set their sights on Kingston – the historic 1774 building in the Stockade District that once housed the Kingston Academy, to be precise. Solidly situated at one corner of John and Crown Streets, the structure has also been used by a 19th-century cabinetmaker, a 20th-century newspaper and a bevy of restaurants. Radio station WGHQ occupied the second floor for years.
Rough Draft, the Stromoskis’ first-floor establishment, is now a comfy hub of intellectual and recreational activity in the form of a bar, offering a rotating selection of 12 beers and hard ciders on tap and a few in cans, wines by the glass, Counter Culture coffee and espresso beverages, Harney & Sons tea and savory pies from the Down Under Bakery (dub pies) in Brooklyn – not to mention a promising selection of books: fiction, history/biography, local interest, politics/current event, kids’ and Young Adult selections, graphic novels and whatever else can be special-ordered in.
The Stromoskis met in eighth grade, dated through high school and college and ended up in New York City, where Anthony taught and Amanda worked as a freelance health-and-fitness journalist. By chance, they came upon a really cool used-book store in Chapel Hill, North Carolina that served cheap beer, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and grilled cheese; at night, bands and poetry readings took the stage. The tone was “Relax and have a great time,” says Anthony. “That was the germ of the idea 15 years ago. Over the last decade or so, my wife and I have road-tripped through the Hudson Valley quite a bit – camping, hiking, going to breweries. We stopped here in Kingston every time we came up, and then started spending weekends, and fell in love with the people and the place. We also found Spotty Dog Books & Ale [in Hudson], which affirmed for us that our idea could actually become a business plan. Another place in Brooklyn, Free Bird, had a similar vibe: a little more active and fun than your average bookstore.”
After living in the City for a decade and loving their jobs there, they reached the point of having to decide. “Were we going to stick with it for the long haul, stay in Brooklyn, or try to do this dream that we had? In Brooklyn, the costs would have been prohibitive. We wanted to own a house, to live near the mountains. All those things coalesced, and we felt that this was the place for us.”
The Stromoskis tapped into the friendly advice of other indie-bookstore-owners, talked with bar-owners and learned more about coffee. “Green Light Books in Brooklyn gave us their plan for raising money and building a bookstore from scratch. We researched as much as we could, and enlisted the help of friends and family. We’ve been super-lucky. We love our neighborhood in Kingston, and found this beautiful space that we’ve been looking at for ten years.”
Anthony talks about weighing the pros and cons of installing a new business into a landmark building – one that, due to the age of the structure, required some work to comply with Ulster County Health Department regulations. “It took some time to make sure we were doing everything we needed to do for food safety. We worked with great people at the county, who were very helpful. The City of Kingston was really helpful. The liquor license was easy for us, especially because of our location: not near any schools or churches. It went really smoothly. We managed to open within 3 ½ months after signing the lease.”
Before making that commitment, the couple had considerations about how big the space is. “The rent was high, and we’re on a shoestring budget; but frankly, when we investigated the history of the building, we decided the rent was worth it,” Anthony said. “The great thing with the huge windows is that you can see what’s going on in here. It looks really cozy, and the lights project onto the street outside. And we’re not competing with other businesses right next to us for attention.”
The Stromoskis used a light touch in the décor, choosing to preserve the historic look. “A lot of the renovations had already been done really well, and we didn’t want to cover up the stone and bricks – rather complement the space. The bar was built from scratch. All the furniture, save a couple of used pieces we found at Kingston Consignment, were made from scratch with recycled pallet wood from the Green Pallet in Midtown.”
A leather couch – cracked and looking like it has been there for years – and comfortable chairs invite people to sit and read or have a conversation. He says that they’ve always wanted to have a place where they could put up a sign that reads: “Please put your feet up on the furniture.” “My wife and I have a lot of experience in the service industry,” he says. “I’ve been working in bars and restaurants since I was 15. We waited tables together in a little restaurant in our hometown. But the book side of things is new for us. We’re learning on the job, talking to people who are smarter than us. We’re also trying to do things a little differently and make a unique niche for ourselves in the book universe. We’re thinking of it more like a service: a hospitality business rather than a retail shop.”
He mentions learning the ropes of special-ordering books for customers, and potentially not making any money on the book at all. “From a hospitality standpoint, I think that’s perfectly worth doing – because if we take care of that person, she’s gonna come back and have a cup of coffee, tell her friends that we took care of her, or buy three more books that are in the store, because she feels she has a relationship with us. I see that as an investment. Other people in the book industry have said, ‘Never give anything away for free. You need to make as much money as you can on every book because the margins are so slim.’ If we were only worrying about what percentage we make on every single book, we might not do something like that.”
Rough Draft has already hosted a Nerd Jeopardy night, a one-off literary trivia event led by a local novelist. “It was packed; we had a ton of new people I haven’t seen in the shop before. We do plan on having a weekly bar trivia as we go forward, and we’re looking for the right group to run it. We’ve already signed up a few poetry readings. And we’re looking into hosting book groups. We want to be as hospitable as we can be: offer a quiet, comfortable place to work, serve people good coffee or a beer, a glass of wine. A lot of the coffeeshops in town close in late afternoon. We’re not looking to compete with them early in the morning; but then, we’re staying open later for professionals just getting off work, or night-owls who want a cup of coffee or a savory pie at 10 p.m.
“We wanted to do something good for the town. Big-box bookstores are struggling; independent bookstores are thriving and growing, especially with some sort of sideline that gives them a chance to pad their margins and survive. We sell a lot more beer than books; in fact, the bar is letting us sell books. People can come in and work anytime, day or night. That’s exactly what I want to see: to be a part of the pub atmosphere, or be on their own at the window seating where the music’s not too loud. Be in a place of intellectualism, dialogue, exchange and comfort.”