It used to be that booksellers were content to offer coffee to get customers to linger in their stores. But several bookstores in Baltimore, Md., are changing that dynamic—part of a larger pattern of changes taking place at bookstores across the country as they attempt to diversify inventory and gain margin. That may be because Bmore has a long history of books and brews. In the mid-twentieth century Louie’s Bookstore Cafe was known for its art, catfish sandwiches, and books. In 1933, the Peabody Bookshop opened its “Beer Stube” (or taproom), making it one of the first, if not the first, bookstore bars in the U.S. Following in that tradition breathe books opened a health food café in June, and hired the former pastry chef at the now defunct Louie’s. Earlier this month Atomic Books, which is known for its graphic novels and pop culture mix, put in a bar to serve beer and began selling packaged goods (think Edgar Allan Poe beer); no coffee, no food. And in November Red Emma’s, a worker-owned and collectively run bookstore and coffeehouse that has been closed all summer, will reopen in a significantly larger space with a restaurant and coffee roastery, along with a Free School and many more books.
For Benn Ray, co-owner with Rachel Whang of 21 year-old Atomic Books, adding beer just made sense. When the space next door occupied by doubledutch boutique opened up in May, they nabbed it and more than doubled in size from 700 to 1,500 sq. ft. “Sales are very good. In the past year or two, things have been gradually improving,” says Ray. “So we thought we would try expanding and diversifying.” Ray and Whang used the additional space to bring in used books and and moved their record store, Celebrated Summer, next door. Now they’re thinking of moving both used books and magazines there and turning it into more of a newsstand. The new books will stay in the original space, along with what Ray affectionately refers to as “the eight bar,” because the bar counter is collaged with Daniel Crowes’s Eightball comics.
“[The store] essentially has the same aesthetic,” says Ray. “We’ve cobbled together a series of different niches to build community.” Atomic Books still carries alternative, underground comics, art books, outsider and beat fiction, and quirky nonfiction. The biggest difference is that it no longer offers beer at events that was purchased and “sold” by donation. “That was a money-losing proposition,” says Ray, who has been surprised by what he describes as the “unbelievable margins” on alcohol bought wholesale. “Staffing is the trickiest part,” says Ray, who had to get an alcohol-awareness license. “All of our booksellers are bartenders.”
One side effect of having a bar, is that Ray and Whang no longer feel compelled to have author events just for writers with new books. Earlier this month they added a Writers Under the Influence poetry series, which gives poets who may be between books a chance to read and talk about their work. Next year the store, which publishes some comix, plans to get back to doing more. Next up is a Fart Party Omnibus by Julia Wertz, which could come out as early as summer 2014.
Red Emma’s also has ambitious plans and raised $30,445 on Indiegogo http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/building-a-better-red-emma-s earlier this year to help make the move to a space that’s more than five times the previous 800 sq. ft. store front. “In the new space, we’re devoting just over 1,000 sq. ft. to the bookstore area,” says Kate Khatib, cofounder and worker at Red Emma’s, as well as design coordinator at AK Press. “Before we tended to stock a small amount of ‘must-have’ titles in each section and them supplemented with new or newly available titles. In the new store we’ll be able to really build out our book sections.” Those include philosophy, political theory, queer/GLBT, political fiction, art, and avant-garde literature.
The goal, she says, is that customers should be able to spend the day at Red Emma’s: “Come in for a cup of freshly-roasted coffee, browse the books, meet friends for dinner, stay for a book talk or a Free School class, buy a signed copy of the author’s book, and then finish the day with a nice glass of organic wine or cooperatively produced beer.”
Although the re-opening has been pushed back from October, Red Emma’s is planning some preview events next month and has lined up book talks with Bill Ayers (Public Enemy) and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (The End of San Francisco) when the store opens.