Why you should care
Because as A.E. Housman put it, “Malt does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man.”
Go to Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg, New York or any other literary hub and you’ll find café bars where great writers started their day with a caffeine hit and moved on to stronger stuff as the day wore on.
Today, across the U.S., beer and books are becoming happy bedfellows. From Seattle to Denver to Houston, bookstore bars are popping up as literary and social spaces highly valued by their communities.
People appreciate their independent bookstores, as demonstrated by the bibliophilic demonstrators who gathered outside New York’s beloved Rizzoli Bookstore on 57th Street earlier this month. Although the owners aim to relocate, Rizzoli was forced to leave its iconic building, which is set to be bulldozed.
Unfortunately, despite their social value, independent booksellers are in trouble. The number of independents in the U.S. has dropped by half in the last two decades, and fewer than 10 percent of all book sales get rung up by these retailers. To put that in perspective, Kindle sales make up 19.5 percent of U.S. book sales, nearly double the business at the independents.
The idea of a literary café has always involved both coffee and alcohol.
— Michael Macomber, owner of Elements , a book, coffee and beer house
It’s a dark cloud, but the bookstore bar is a bright silver lining. Entrepreneurs like Macomber have figured out how to adjust their business models to suit today’s market. There’s the obvious benefit that attaching a bar to your store helps subsidize the books, which are often more intriguing than those offered by the big chains. “I tend to go more intellectual with my selection,” Macomber tells OZY. “I think people are tired of the megastore selection.” Many bookstore bars, like Macomber’s, offer highly curated selections, drawing people in with non-mainstream texts, including books by local authors, alternative philosophy or LGBT sections.
Others distinguish themselves by their particular mix of products. One Brooklyn café offers to trade beer or coffee for vintage paperbacks , art books, poetry and rare books, while BookBar in Denver carefully selects books that are “great for group discussions” over a brew or two.
Events are also essential to the bookstore bar model, establishing them as vibrant community spaces rather than straight retail operations. Some offer live music and organized book clubs, while Elements’ “Meet the Brewers” is particularly popular with customers who come to sample beer made by local craft breweries and coffee from area roasters.
The bookstore bar is a bright silver lining.
And if serious bibliophiles are worried about beer getting spilled on books, Macomber assures us it hasn’t been an issue.
“We tend to be less of the overindulging crowd and more of the chilled, relaxed crowd,” he tells OZY.
Book nerds are (mostly) a well-behaved bunch.