Booksellers have been adding cafés and other food-and-drink attractions to their stores for years, but restaurateurs breaking into bookselling is more of a rarity.
Enter Beginnings, a bar and restaurant billed by its website as “a literary, cultural experience.” Located in Atlantic Beach on Long Island, Beginnings blends the culinary with the literary, featuring writerly decor, menus, and a mix of programs aimed at readers of all stripes.
Co-owned by husband-and-wife team Ben and Heather Freiser, Beginnings opened this March. Among the literary touches devised by Heather are bookshelves and a rolling ladder along the walls, plus a service staff clad in Out of Print T-shirts featuring book covers from works such as Beowulf and The Outsiders. “When I met [Ben], he had restaurants already, so there was nothing that really had our joint influence on it,” said Heather, an editor and television producer who studied poetry in college. “So I thought, ‘You know, it would be really interesting to do something on this [literary] theme.’ ”
The Freisers hired beverage director Stephen Magliano, a former academic and English teacher with a long background in mixology and a fondness for hard-drinking literary men like Hemingway and Faulkner. He created drinks such as A Light in August (Hudson Baby Bourbon, honey, black tea, anise, lemon), meant to capture the essence of authors and their writing with ingredients representing either their home region and the qualities of their work. (The honey and black tea of Faulkner’s South, for instance, or the Lillet and grapes featuring in another cocktail, the Grapes of Wrath.)
With its menus in place, Beginnings began holding events just two months in, in time to take advantage of the beach town’s summer dining frenzy. The restaurant’s first event series, A Taste in Literature, started in May with a Great Gatsby–themed tasting menu; Beginnings holds tasting events with menus based on works of literature on the third Wednesday of every month, priced at $75 a head. “The tasting menus are something I felt wasn’t being done anywhere, and it was a way to educate people as well,” Heather said. “For example, Eat Pray Love is certainly far from my favorite book, but [the Eat Pray Love tasting event] got a big draw, and we gave people discussion topics based on the book.”
Other event series followed, and Beginnings now hosts a book club on Mondays, children’s readings and events such as the Little Bookworms Brunch for Kids, and will hold a Halloween masquerade and burlesque together with a poetry-themed burlesque troupe, the Poetry Brothel.
Then there’s the bookselling. In September, Beginnings hosted Stephanie Danler, author of this summer’s bestselling Sweetbitter. Danler read to a packed house and signed copies of her novel. Any remaining copies were stacked behind the bar for sale at a later date. The signing proved so successful that Danler and Heather discussed the possibility of an encore event, and the restaurant has continued to book authors—including local writers—for readings. Danielle Trussoni signed and read from The Fortress earlier this month, and the authors of Knives and Ink, Isaac Fitzgerald and Wendy MacNaughton, are slated for a November appearance.
Customer response has been very positive, and Heather believes some of that comes from a sense of community and intimacy intrinsic to sitting around a dining table. “When we do the author signings, we don’t do them at Saturday morning at 10 a.m.,” she said. “It’s loud in here. It’s certainly not a book reading in a traditional sense. People were coming up to Stephanie Danler’s table, and she was having cocktails with people. It feels so much more intimate when you have an author here—it’s not the traditional sort of reading where you’re in the Strand or in the library. There were a lot of intimate conversations between her and people here. Hopefully, as we’re around longer and we get some bigger names here, we can keep that feel.”