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,