New takes on the classic college-town genre offer guests the chance to curate reading lists, sip natural wines, and eat great food
A bookstore with a bar is easily one of mankind’s best inventions, up there with polar fleece and those potato 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 serviceable, the wine probably comes from a bag of Franzia, and the snacks tend to be mass-produced or just mediocre.
But in the past few years, a new generation of operators has rewritten the story of what a bookstore bar can be by making the food and drinks as much of a draw as the book selection. If what we had before were bookstore bars, these are bar bookstores, focusing as much on fostering community and engagement over glasses of natural wine and homemade sourdough as over a great read. And the results are far more than the sum of their parts.
Audrey Wright, owner-operator of Paradis Books & Bread in North Miami, says she and the store’s other owners were inspired by the bookstore cafes they frequented while in college in New York, including radical queer bookstore Bluestockings, where Wright worked for a while. “Part of Bluestockings was it could be a place for people to hang out, like not just books, but a nice safe space for people to feel comfortable in,” she said. Bluestockings served coffee and some vegan cookies, but Wright had a hard time finding places where she could hang out all day, and instead she and her friends would bounce 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 a multitude of 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 pizza.” Basically, you never have to leave.
Sam Brown, owner of Leopold’s in Madison, Wisconsin, had the same goal. He was initially inspired by Kramers in Washington, D.C., a bookstore which boasts an all-day restaurant and live jazz music. “I just thought that was such a wonderful concept because it gave you a reason to be there at every hour of the day,” said Brown, which felt like a solid business plan. “You can have a drink or if you don’t want to drink, it has books.” Leopold’s opened last July, and creating a space where alcohol was available but drinking wasn’t the central activity also felt 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 customer who might not be comfortable going by themselves to a bar and is looking for something more approachable,” says Brown. “I think having a place where people can come get coffee, where people can get a cocktail, and where there just isn’t the heavy insistence that you drink that you’d have at a bar is really appealing to people.”
Bar bookstores are great places to read over a glass of wine, or bring a date to casually cover how you thought Detransition, Baby had such interesting things to say about the gendered nature of parenthood. Reading obviously never went out of style, but there’s a literary aesthetic that’s been trending, bolstered by social media. Bookstagram advocates for #readingchallenge, book cover reveals act as teasers for later releases, and more people are actively curating their bookshelves to look good over Zoom calls. Sometimes literary aesthetics even dovetail with food and drink — Custom Cocktails for the End Times regularly creates cocktails based on new book releases, and YouTubers like Bryton Taylor are all about making recipes based on meals in classic literature. Reading is cool. Well-crafted 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 bolster the other. “Especially for indie bookstores, having this additional 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 who had bookselling experience, for whom designing a comprehensive coffee or cocktail service was an afterthought. What makes this generation of bar bookstores different is they’re run by people with restaurant experience, or at least who understand that food and drink has to be a holistic part of the business, not something to half-heartedly tack on.
Not only do the two sides support each other, but they inspire creativity in the other, pushing each genre forward. Leopold’s cocktails all come from books, and it makes an effort to source those books so it can direct customers toward making the drinks themselves. And Brown is looking to start a wine program that can pair bottles with books from the same country of origin. Paradis’s book selection highlights works of marginalized authors, critical theory, and small publishers, and there’s a small library program. The food follows that ethos — the breads and baked goods are made from cold-milled flour from sustainable producers Carolina Ground, and the wine is from small, organic producers that hand-harvest grapes.
At Wild Child in Somerville, Massachusetts, which opened in summer 2020, both the wine and book offerings follow the mission of its sister bar, natural wine spot Rebel Rebel, which among other things has instituted a paid internship program for BIPOC public high school students, and donated a percentage of income to abortion access. “It was very important to me to create a space, especially with the social activism work that Rebel Rebel does, to not just offer another vanilla bookstore,” says Alexandra Tennant, director of literature. Both venues strive to be affordable and accessible to support both the Somerville community and independent winemakers of underrepresented backgrounds, and at Wild Child, books by women, POC, and the queer community. “That space is a community bar, a neighborhood bar,” said Christian Bruno, Wild Child’s assistant general manager. “Especially following the summer 2020, I think people were looking for community spaces.”
Book Club Bar co-owner Nat Etsen wanted to make sure the bar bookstore fit in with the “social and outgoing” East Village. “Our intent was not to be this quiet little enclave where people had to whisper.” Events like author reading series, drink and draws, and game nights help Book Club from feeling like a library, and further Etsen’s goal to foster “getting together and gathering and sharing our love of books.” The design of the bar itself facilitates that — the bookstore is bookended (sorry) by the bar at the entrance and the outdoor patio in the back. This is a place where customers are meant to stay and socialize.
The bar bookstore 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 goods their community can afford. But again, having two revenue sources means profits don’t hinge on a glass of wine being $11 instead of $7.
There’s also the fact that, because both independent bookstores and restaurants are precarious businesses, there are people incredibly dedicated to seeing them thrive. Over the pandemic, communities banded together to order from local bookstores instead of Amazon, and to buy gift cards and takeout from beloved local spots. Combine those energies and you have a community hub, where locals specifically seek out the ability to drink and eat and read and party all in one spot. If you don’t want a book about 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 chat about your new purchases with friends over some beers. No two things inspire connection more than good food and the love of a shared piece of art. Truly, why would you leave?