Back in the 1980s—before bookstores began weighing the addition of cafes, possibly with wine and beer licenses—stores like Louie’s Bookstore Café in Baltimore and Trident Booksellers & Café in Boston aimed specifically to integrate food for the mind and the body. Now a handful of bookstores are returning to that concept, which Trident expanded on earlier this year, when it added a 2,500 sq. ft. second floor cafe.
Next month, eight-year-old breathe books in Baltimore will convert to breathe bookstore cafe, with expanded hours, more staff, and a new manager—Joanne Goshen, the former pastry chef at Louie’s, which closed in 1999. “We are a community bookstore,” said owner Susan Weis-Bohlen. “I just want to make it even more of a community. With the cafe I can sell a latte and have two more books on the shelf. Before, I was selling socks. I brought in a lot of different sidelines, and I thought, ‘This is not me.’ ” So instead of wind chimes and tchotchkes, Weis-Bohlen is planning a healthy mix of vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and ayurvedic food with a bigger title base. She will stock more literary fiction, poetry, coffee-table books, and pop-up books, and is considering international newspapers as well as yoga and Buddhist magazines not found at Whole Foods.
Last fall Weis-Bohlen—a Chopra Center–certified ayurvedic consultant who teaches cooking—began meeting with economist and entrepreneur Michael Shuman, author of Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity. He suggested that rather than open a separate cafe, she turn the bookstore into a bookstore cafe and helped her create a two-pronged approach for raising capital. In December, she launched an Indiegogo campaign for $15,000 to buy an espresso machine, juicer, and other equipment. At the same time, she began approaching customers with deep pockets about investing in the business with long-term, low-interest loans, or as equity investors. As of last week, Weis-Bohlen was just $11,000 shy of her $150,000 goal and had sold an 11% stake in her store. “I’m so excited,” she said. “I didn’t want to close the bookstore. It’s not precarious anymore. The bookstore has taken on a life of its own.”
Nine months ago, Erika Davis, owner of then–seven-year-old Creekside Books & Coffee in the village of Skaneateles, N.Y., faced similar difficulties. She scaled back to a single storefront from two, and moved books—mostly adult fiction and children’s and YA titles—into the cafe. “Every bookstore has to be a hybrid of some sort. It was the only way to make the bookstore work,” said Davis, who continues to maintain an active author events schedule, in addition to regular trivia, open mike, and live music nights. She also encourages book clubs to meet at the store.
So far the response to comingling books and food and to placing bestsellers at eye-level, where customers wait for their drinks, has been good. As Sarah W. from Somerville, Mass., wrote in a five-star review on Yelp, “This place is amazing. Love the integration of food, coffee, and books. Free Wi-Fi, great couches upstairs, and awesome breakfast sandwiches.” Now Davis’s biggest hurdle is liquidating unused bookshelves.
Andy Shallal, founder of Busboys and Poets—with four restaurant/bookstores in the Washington, D.C., area—said, “The bookstores are doing well, being that they’re nonprofits.” Shallal has a fifth store on the way in Tacoma, Md., early next year. The for-profit restaurants, which opened in 2005, make possible the bookstores, which are run by Teaching for Change, as well as Busboys’ expansion—although plans to partner with Modern Times in San Francisco and to find a partner in Denver have been slowed. “We’re sort of a gathering place. It’s not just another place to get burgers or a sushi place. People come and hang out. It’s a different energy,” noted Shallal. “The vibes the books create is very significant.” So significant that he launched a Busboys and Poets imprint, PM Press.
Trident incorporated food from the beginning in order to have a significant presence on Boston’s fashionable Newbury Street. It’s the only independent bookstore that has survived in Back Bay. “Not having to rely 100% on the books is what keeps it going,” said manager Courtney Flynn, whose parents founded the store in 1984. “My dad talks about the store as offering a space and allowing it to evolve around the customers.” That has meant focusing on mainstream books, although Trident has a strong Buddhist and metaphysical section. A year after author Lodro Rinzler did an event there for The Buddha Walks into a Bar, the book is still among Trident’s top-10 bestsellers.
In recent months, Flynn has added sidelines to accompany the store’s 20,000 titles. “I have no qualms about selling gifty items next to books,” she said. “People come here for the experience.” With the cafe expansion, that can mean an author event and dinner. The second floor was designed to be event-friendly—not just because of the traffic flow but also with the addition of projection and sound systems. And at Trident, you can get a beer with that book, or a glass of wine on tap. In fact, Flynn encourages it.