A bookstore with a bar is easily one of mankind’s best inventions, up there with polar fleece and those chips that taste like ham. There’s usually a big chair, and if you do it right, you can read for hours while sipping a coffee or a glass of wine. However, bookstore bars have usually been bookstores first: the coffee is usable, the wine is probably from a bag of Franzia, and the snacks tend to be mass-produced or just mediocre.
But in recent years, a new generation of operators has rewritten the history of what a bookstore bar can be by making the food and drink appeal as much as the book selection. If what we had before were bookstore bars, these are bar bookstores, focusing as much on community building and engagement over glasses of natural wine and homemade sourdough as a good read. And the results are more than the sum of their parts.
Audrey Wright, owner-operator of Paradise Books & Bread in North Miami, says she and the store’s other owners were inspired by the bookstore cafes they frequented while studying in New York, including radical queer bookstore Bluestockings, where Wright worked for a time. “Part of Bluestockings was that it could be a place where people could hang out, like not just books, but a nice, safe space that people felt comfortable in,” she said. Bluestockings served vegan coffee and cookies, but Wright struggled to find places she could hang out all day, and instead she and her friends bounced from bookstore to cafe to wine bar. At Paradis, which opened last summer, she “wanted a place where people could come and use it in so many different ways. Like you could come for the books, you could come just for the wine or just for the food, just for the bread and the pizza. Basically, you never have to leave.
Sam Brown, owner of by Leopold in Madison, Wisconsin, had the same goal. He was first inspired by Kramer in Washington, DC, a bookstore that features an all-day restaurant and live jazz music. “I just thought it was such a wonderful concept because it gave you a reason to be there at all hours of the day,” Brown said, what sounded like a solid business plan. “You can have a drink or if you don’t want to drink there are books.” Leopold’s opened last July and creating a space where alcohol was available but drinking was not the central activity was also important, especially in a college town. Yes, you can drink as many craft cocktails as you want, but no one is trying to rage in a bookstore – the vibe is just different. “We attract a client who may not be comfortable going to a bar alone and is looking for something more accessible,” says Brown. “I think having a place where people can come and have a coffee, where people can have a cocktail and where there’s just not the heavy emphasis on drinking that you would have in a bar is really appealing to people. people.”
Bar bookstores are great places to read over a glass of wine, or bring a date to casually cover what you were thinking. Detransition, Baby had Phone interesting things to say about the gendered nature of parenting. Reading has obviously never gone out of fashion, but there is a literary aesthetic that is in vogue, reinforced by social media. Bookstagram is advocating for #readingchallenge, book cover reveals act as teasers for later releases, and more and more people are actively organizing their bookshelves to look good on Zoom calls. Sometimes literary aesthetics even go well with food and drink – Personalized cocktails for the end of time regularly creates cocktails based on new book releases, and YouTubers love Bryton Taylor are all about making recipes based on meals in classic literature. Reading is cool. Well designed cocktails are cool. They just go together.
Financially, combining bars and bookstores has its advantages. Each type of business is precarious to run, but together one side can strengthen the other. “Particularly for independent bookstores, having that extra revenue stream is what can make a bookstore really sustainable and really profitable,” says Erin Neary, owner of Book club bar in Manhattan’s East Village, which opened in November 2019. But often bookstore bars and cafes were run by people with bookstore experience, for whom designing a full-service cafe or of cocktails was an afterthought. What differentiates this generation of bookstore-bars is that they are run by people with restaurant experience, or at least who understand that food and drink should be a holistic part of the business, and not something to add without enthusiasm.
Not only do the two sides support each other, but they inspire each other’s creativity, pushing each genre forward. Leopold’s cocktails all come from books, and he strives to source those books so he can direct customers to making the drinks themselves. And Brown is looking to launch a wine program that can pair bottles with books from the same country of origin. Paradis’ book selection highlights the works of marginalized authors, critical theory and small publishers, and there is a small library program. Food follows this philosophy – breads and baked goods are made using cold ground flour from sustainable producers Carolina Land, and the wine comes from small organic producers who harvest the grapes by hand.
AT Wild child in Somerville, Massachusetts, which opened in summer 2020, wine and book offerings follow the mission of its sister bar, a natural wine venue rebel rebel, which has among other things set up a paid internship program for BIPOC public secondary school students and donated a percentage of its earnings for abortion access. “It was very important for me to create a space, especially with the social activism work that Rebel Rebel does, to not just offer another vanilla bookstore,” explains Alexandra Tennant, director of literature. Both venues strive to be affordable and accessible to support both the Somerville community and independent winemakers from underrepresented backgrounds, and at Wild Child, women’s books, POC and the queer community. “This space is a community bar, a neighborhood bar,” said Christian Bruno, assistant general manager of Wild Child. “Especially after the summer of 2020, I think people were looking for community spaces.”
Book Club Bar co-owner Nat Etsen wanted to make sure the bar’s bookstore fit in with the “social and outgoing” East Village. “Our intention was not to be this quiet little enclave where people had to whisper.” Events such as author reading series, drinks and raffles, and game nights help the Book Club not feel like a library, and reinforce Etsen’s goal of fostering “come together , gather and share our love of books”. The design of the bar itself facilitates this – the bookstore is reserved (sorry) by the bar at the entrance and the outdoor patio at the back. It’s a place where customers are meant to stay and socialize.
The bookstore-bar business model — what Brown describes as giving customers a reason to be there all the time — is difficult to navigate. Natural wines and ethically sourced baked goods tend to be more expensive than a Bota Box behind the counter, and these bar bookstores must balance their ethics with providing products their community can afford. But again, having two streams of income means profits aren’t dependent on an $11 glass of wine instead of $7.
There’s also the fact that because independent bookstores and restaurants are precarious businesses, there are incredibly dedicated people to see them thrive. During the pandemic, communities came together to order local bookstores instead of Amazon, and at buy gift cards and takeout at beloved local spots. Combine these energies and you have a community hub, where locals specifically seek the ability to eat and drink, read and party in one place. If you don’t want a book on intersectionality, you can get a flatbread. If you don’t want a glass of wine, you can have a latte. You can sit alone and read, or take your book home, or discuss your new purchases with friends over a few beers. There aren’t two things that inspire connection more than good food and the love of a shared piece of art. Really, why would you leave?