BEMIDJI -- When John and Emily Enger started dating as college students 10 years ago, they also started thinking about ways they could combine their skills and passions.
“We’ve known we wanted to collaborate on stuff since we first met,” Emily said. “It’s really how we fell in love, daydreaming about fun stuff we could do.”
Those dreams are becoming a reality for the Engers. The Bemidji couple recently started an e-commerce business called Enger Grove, selling John’s handcrafted wood products out of their home in the woods. Emily handles the website, social media and marketing, and John creates everything from rolling pins to furniture to a large timber frame building with wood from their property.
“This for sure is a side hustle,” John said. “I don’t have any ambitions about this being anything more.”
He works full-time as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, covering a large part of northern Minnesota. “It’s a great job,” he said. “I’ve worked my whole life to get to where I am in my current job. But I’m very happy with the scale at which (Enger Grove) will be. If we scale up too much then it’s just too much for me to do. I have enough deadlines for MPR. (Woodworking) is fun, but it’s also a good way to make some extra money off a skill set I’ve had my entire life.”
For Emily, the new venture allowed her to put her marketing talents to work at home where she could be with their 2-year-old son, Frankie. She left her job at Watermark Art Center earlier this year, and the Engers are now expecting their second child.
It all started for the couple when they met in a music appreciation class at Minnesota State University Moorhead. John noticed that Emily was reading a novel that was written by his uncle, Lin Enger, an English professor at the school.
“I knew that she had met him, probably taken his class,” John said. “And I also knew that nobody who’s met him doesn’t like him. So I figured I have an opening here. If she likes my uncle, I’m like a smaller, less cool version, but attainable. It was a perfect opening.”
Here’s Emily’s version of the story: “I knew Lin personally because he was one of my English professors, and already knew he had … a nephew attending MSUM. So I had already figured out who John was from attendance roll call, but I pretended to be surprised.”
One of John’s first gifts to Emily was a Moleskine notebook. That soon became their book of dreams.
“Of course it wasn’t this practical back then,” Emily said. “It was stuff like ‘let’s open a writer’s retreat or be travel writers, or co-writers.’ I would write out marketing plans for each of those things. As years go by you realize none of that is going to happen, but it was the beginning of how we grew as a couple. So when this opportunity happened and we finally had this space, and the timing being right for me to be home with Frankie, maybe this isn’t what was in the notebook all those years ago, but it’s another way that we can do something together as a couple, and actually feel like we’re bringing our gifts together.”
John’s gift is making things out of wood. It all started when he was 9. With the help of his father, Leif (yes, the New York Times best-selling novelist), the youngster built a canoe out of hardware store plywood.
“He told me I was building it,” John said. “Looking back, he basically built it. It was called a six-hour canoe, just plywood and epoxy. It took me six months instead of six hours, but you know, I was 9. We got a couple good years out of it.”
And it was the spark he needed. John continued to make things out of wood, and at age 15 he built a more elaborate boat, a rowing pram.
“I decided I was going to be a professional boat builder, because I couldn't get a summer job,” he said. “I took the money I had and bought mahogany marine plywood and white oak and bronze hardware. I sold it for a couple grand and thought ‘this was awesome.’ But then I calculated how much I had spent to get the materials and how many hours I had put in, and I realized I made $2.50 an hour.”
He expects to do quite a bit better than that with the new venture, while also finding a way to relax away from his regular job.
“It’s very meditative,” John said. “Journalism is a rush; in some ways it’s a more exciting job than most people get to have. I can be on that level for a certain amount of time, and then I really have to do something with my hands. Everybody has to have that thing that allows them to center themselves. For me, that’s woodworking.”
Emily certainly enjoys having some of her husband’s handcrafted creations around the house.
“His work is so gorgeous, and so unique,” she said. “He thinks very functionally, so his art reflects that. He was making so much stuff, that I said, ‘Honey, I love your stuff, but I don’t need any more wood items. I don’t need any more wood stools, I don’t need any more chairs.’ So it became clear he needed to start making stuff for other people.”
The Engers will host a Woodland Wonderland Maker's Market from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7 on their property at 2423 Frohn Road NE. The outdoor event will feature John's work, from small items like rolling pins and tree ornaments to large furniture pieces. They also will be launching a line of restored vintage hatchets and axes, and John will demonstrate wood turning. Guest artists and businesses also will be on hand, selling handmade jewelry, fiber art, baked goods and premium coffee.