Eamon Keating grew up visiting Essex with his family on summer weekends. Sometimes, it was a day here and a day there, other times every week. It’s what they did.
“We would go up, we would hit Crane’s Beach, we would always make sure we stopped into Woodman’s,” Keating said. “It was just a tradition for my family, up until I was in college, really.”
These days, Keating is back in Essex. Only now he’s set up shop on the town’s Causeway, just a few yards down from those same restaurants he went to as a kid.
Keating and his business partner opened the Essex Wine Exchange, a high-end wine and craft beer store, in April 2016. It’s the sister store to the Boston Wine Exchange, which opened six years earlier and is nestled in the city’s Financial District. Keating serves as manager, overseeing the operation from its staff to what’s on its shelves.
Boston to Essex is a big jump — a fact not lost on Keating. There’s more than miles separating the two. But the move to Cape Ann developed “out of opportunity and need,” he said. EWX replaced another package store that had vacated the same building. The Main Street location, in part, made it a difficult spot to pass on, he said.
“There was an opportunity to open beer and wine [in Essex],” Keating said. “And there was a need because the store that we replaced wasn’t a full-service… wasn’t servicing the community properly. It was not an asset to the community, so we saw a need there. And so the need, alongside the opportunity, the available real estate, it made it a nice fit.”
Keating grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and hasn’t strayed far from the Bay State. He went to UMass Amherst, where he studied sport management.
“I originally thought that I wanted to work in arenas, like the Boston Garden,” he said.
But when he graduated, he found job prospects slim.
“It was very difficult to find work in that field,” Keating said. “It was a very competitive industry — it was a lot more of who you know than what you know.”
He had a degree, but found himself face-to-face with a far-from-certain career path. So he made a choice.
“I had just graduated from UMass Amherst — I had consumed a tremendous amount of beer while I was there — and I wanted to look into becoming a beer salesperson,” Keating said. “I hunted around, called around, and I sort of got laughed at, for the most part. I remember specifically one old woman saying, ‘We don’t hire salespeople off the street — our salespeople come from inside. They never leave. They either die or retire.”
The early going was tough, Keating said — “I was sort of down and out.” Then a door opened.
“I found one gentleman who gave me an opportunity to work in a beer and wine and spirits company, in a very entry-level role as a merchandiser,” he said. “That’s how I got started in the industry.”
Keating worked on the sales end of the business for a handful of years. But he realized working inside stores — helping customers, crafting selections, and creating an experience — was what appealed to him most. Working in stores offered access to the wide, wild world of beers, wines, and other spirits, “instead of having to sell people what the company wanted us to sell people,” he said.
He eventually landed at Charles Street Liquors on Beacon Hill in Boston, a store that would shape his future in more ways than one.
“I actually met my wife working in that store, which was pretty spectacular,” Keating said.
After a few years on Charles Street, another opportunity came knocking.
Keating was offered a chance to help open a new store, the Boston Wine Exchange, in 2010. Fast forward through six more years of industry education and brand building, and Keating’s the man in charge in Essex.
Those years of growth and experience in Boston, Keating said, came in handy when he started thinking about the vision for both Wine Exchange stores. He learned some of the things that worked and others that didn’t, and made sure that, when he was at the helm, to leave the latter behind.
“Whether it be the staff not properly interacting with the customers, and sort of just taking a more old-school approach where you just sort of sit back and don’t try to help the customer,” he said of the kind of service he didn’t want in the store.
He also thought hard about selection and layout, and focused on curating an eclectic mix of styles, brands, regions, and tastes.
In beer, for example, EWX carries your everyday Bud Lights and Michelob Ultras. But it also supports local up-and-comers, like Notch Brewing in Salem and Riverwalk Brewing in Newburyport. There’s also shelves dedicated to more obscure brews, like trappist ales, and even mead — a type of honey wine — from 1634 Meadery in Ipswich.
The store’s layout is clean and easy to navigate. Brightly-lit fridges smile back at you with colorful cans, boxes, and flip-flop door handles. Then there’s the bottles — racks upon racks of wines from almost every place on Earth.
“You want to have things ... not things that you can’t find anywhere else, because you can find everything someplace else,” Keating said, “But a nice collection of well-priced, high-quality, interesting — whether it be beer, wine, or, in Boston, spirits.”
EWX has been up and running for nearly eight months, and so far the store has been a success, Keating said. It plays host to weekly tasting events — just one example of the store’s community outreach efforts — that draw dozens of attendees.
On our recent visit, Keating had just returned from rolling a cart full of wine over to the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, which was hosting a benefit for an ALS charity.
“As long as the community is happy that we’re there, and thinks that we’re doing a good job, and we’re proving them with the overall product, then they’re going to support that,” Keating said. “And if they support us, and we can support them, then it’s going to be a mutually beneficial relationship. And the store is going to continue to do great.”
But EWX has also impacted Keating in areas other than business. It’s gotten him, and his family, back to Essex.
“When my brothers and I moved out of my parents’ house, I don’t think they made the trek up to the beach as much as they used to,” he said. “But now they’ve been up to visit the store, and now, they’re so happy, that they have a reason to head back to the area.”
EWX Local Recommendations
▶︎ Anything from Notch Brewing Co. in Salem “They make awesome session beers in many great styles. They just opened up a Tap Room in Salem that’s really great place to have a liter or two of beer!”
▶︎ Ipswich 101 IPA, from Ipswich Brewing in Ipswich “This West Coast-style IPA has been our No. 1 seller at EWX. It’s always super fresh, well hopped, and goes down super smooth.”
▶︎ Uncle Bob's English Style Ale, from Riverwalk Brewing in Newburyport “It’s a well-balanced, English-style ale with toasty malts and a nice pop of hops. The perfect fall sipper.”
And what about wine?
► Anything from Mill River Winery in Rowley “They make a wonderful Pinot Grigio, Rosé, and a new Bordeaux blend that I’m excited to try.”
► Essex Wine Exchange, 91 Main Street, Essex. (978) 768 7500. Open Mon – Sat, 9 am – 9 pm;
Sun 12 – 6 pm.