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The Little Book Store That Could

Dolphin Bookshop Celebrates 65 Years in Business and Stands at a Crossroad

As I sit across from Patti Vonk, the owner of the Dolphin Bookshop, she bubbles with enthusiasm and dedication talking about “opening a world for kids,” maintaining a high quality inventory and creating a nurturing environment for all customers. The phrase that jumps to mind to describe Patti’s relationship to the store is, “labor of love.”

Most of us in town don’t remember a time when Dolphin wasn’t headed by a member of the Vonk family, however the store was first opened in 1946 and there were two previous owners. Dorothea Vonk, Patti’s mother, first came to Dolphin as an employee and purchased the shop in the early ’70s. When Dorothea transitioned from employee to owner, the Dolphin Bookshop became part of the fabric of the Vonk family.

Patti and her sister both worked in the store as teenagers. Patti, the shy one, handled administrative tasks, while her sister helped with customers. Since a small independent bookstore was always a financial challenge, Patti’s Dad worked a full-time job to support the family and sometimes the store.

When Dorothea Vonk decided to sell, Patti who found the shop to be both her “haven and therapy for [her] shyness” decided to buy it. Vonk says she never really considered doing anything else. She loved books and she had evolved to the point where she loved the interaction with the customers.

Patti had a vision of what this small town bookstore could be. Early on, she expanded from just books to toys and games for children. She and her staff became expert in their recommendations. She dreamed of having enough space to incorporate a café where people could relax and read or join an informal discussion or listen to some live music. When the location at the crossroads of Main Street and Shore Road became available Patti decided it was the moment to try and realize her dream.

However all dreams come with risk and this is one is no different. In today’s economy and in a world of electronic books, independent bookstores are having a difficult time Vonk is a realist and familiar with the financial challenges of the retail book business.

 In the ’80s and ’90s it was the growth of the chains such as Borders and Barnes & Noble that presented a threat to Dolphin’s existence. Vonk remembers telling customers, “If you decide to shop at the chains we won’t be here anymore.”

People responded to both the message and the atmosphere that could not be duplicated at the chain stores: knowledgeable salespeople who can guide your choices and make recommendations whether it is for a book or an age appropriate children’s gift.

Today the challenge is e-commerce and e-book readers Vonk has mobilized to meet the challenge. The café will open about December 1. Many “meet the author” events are planned and Vonk is hoping to occasionally incorporate live music and art shows. E-books are now available on line at the Dolphin Bookshop website, and can be downloaded to most e-book readers.

When asked about the challenge that online purchasing and e-books represent Vonk becomes passionate. “People need to understand the ramifications of their choice to buy online. Local businesses like ours will no longer be able to exist. This is a perilous time for us and people can’t assume that we will always be here. We need community support. Every dollar that leaves our community means less tax revenue, fewer jobs and the loss of small business. The very reasons that people have chosen to live in Port Washington: small town atmosphere, local business, a viable Main Street will disappear.” Vonk is hoping that the café, the music, the availability of e-books at their website and the personal touch of the caring staff will continue to draw people to the bookstore.

For 65 years the Dolphin Bookshop has been a positive presence in the life of our community. Let’s hope it continues for many years to come. As Patti says, “Read locally.” Visit to see what is happening at Dolphin.