Sit & Sip

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Gertrude&AliceBookstoreCafe

About three years ago, the owners of The Dolphin Bookshop in Port Washington, N.Y., decided to move the store into a bigger space and build a café onto the premises. Since expanding, The Dolphin has developed into a beloved community marketplace: a social center known for its live music, book readings, local art, children’s story hour, toy store, specialty coffee, gluten-free baked goods, carefully sourced shelves of literature and warm, family-friendly atmosphere. The Dolphin made several smart moves to become such an idyllic destination in Port Washington, the first of which was deciding to sell coffee and tea.

On a regular day in your coffee shop, you might find a mixture of pairs and solitary patrons enjoying warm beverages—the latter likely accompanied by a newspaper, laptop or a good book. Could it simply be that cappuccinos and Russian fiction complement each other? Or is there more to the timeless relationship between literature and a desire to imbibe?

Dolphin Bookshop in Port Washington, New York.
Dolphin Bookshop in Port Washington, New York. (Photo: Vivian Moy.) (Photo at top: Nina Claire.)

In 1920s Paris, a golden age for literary expatriates, cafés were a creative haven for writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Oxford, England, in the 1930s, the Inklings—a literary circle that included the writers C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien—met at a local pub to discuss their latest works. Author J. K. Rowling penned much of the wildly popular “Harry Potter” series in several now-famous British cafés. Literature and café culture have been inexplicably linked for decades, perhaps centuries. The two beloved pastimes share a romanticism, but more than that, cafés and bookstores each offer a “third place” that provides a soothing escape from work and worries.

The café-bookstore model is not a new one, but more retailers are reaping the benefits of this win-win combination. Whether you’re thinking of adding literary offerings to an existing café with some extra space, or adding a coffee or tea bar to your book shop, there are myriad reasons to blend the realm of bookselling with the world of coffee and tea. Read on for testimonials from successful bookstore cafés, advice on how to set the right tone for your shop and further insight into this familiar union.

There are many reasons a bookstore café is a viable business option. For one, diversifying your offerings can help bring in new customers with different tastes. But before you begin stocking your new shop, it’s important to determine the kind of clientele you’re hoping to attract. When Kathy and Gary Robson opened Red Lodge Books in Red Lodge, Mont., customers were clamoring for a café addition, but espresso didn’t seem like the right fit. “Pretty much starting the day we bought the store, people were telling us, ‘Put in a coffee shop, put in a coffee shop!’” says co-owner and author Gary Robson. “But I don’t really like coffee, and there’s a really good coffee shop down the street.” Eventually the Robsons did decide that a café could boost their business, but instead of investing in a coffee bar, they began carefully sourcing a wide range of loose-leaf teas.

The Red Lodge Tea Bar has been an undeniable success. The store’s tea profits, including bulk tea sales and the sale of tea accessories, make up more than a quarter of the shop’s revenue, and because tea sales peak in off-hours (generally around noon and in the early evening), the tea bar at Red Lodge doesn’t have to compete with the coffee shop down the street—in fact, they’ve even shared employees at times.

Before they expanded their business, the Robsons weighed their options. Because the town of Red Lodge attracts skiers in the winter and summer sightseers passing through on their way to nearby Yellowstone National Park, the Robsons knew that most of their customers would be tourists looking to linger, and tea seemed like the perfect accompaniment for relaxed book shop browsing. Tea is also a drink the Robsons enjoy, and one that made sense in shop’s serene atmosphere. With the next-closest tea shop more than an hour away, tea was also a commodity the Robsons could carry exclusively in their small town.

Knowing what kind of business they wanted to cultivate and picking a product they were passionate about helped the Robsons create a niche, and with a menu of 120 teas, Red Lodge is able to offer a diverse product that complements their existing space. “When people go into tea shops, they expect it to be calm, quiet, relaxing and soothing,” says Gary. “That is much more in keeping with what we want in a bookstore.”

When Jane Turner opened Gertrude & Alice Bookstore Café in Bondi Beach, a popular seaside neighborhood in Sydney, her goal was to combine her two greatest loves: coffee and books. That enthusiasm is evident in her focus on providing the most comfortable café possible for a loyal customer base. “We created a quiet haven where the books are scattered everywhere and there are big comfy lounge chairs and great background music—it’s sort of like your lounge room at home,” says Turner, who named her shop after literary greats Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein.

By creating a third place marked by a love of literature and creature comforts such as hearty food and wine, good coffee and inviting furniture, Turner has crafted a community-oriented space defined by a close-knit staff and consistent offerings (the shop is open 15 hours a day, seven days a week.) “We genuinely love our customers and work really hard at our service,” says Turner. “We are like a big family. Our customers are an extension of that connection that we all have.”

Not only does combining bookstore with café create community by providing customers with a space for discussion and an opportunity to absorb knowledge amid their shopping, it also offers a venue to expand on that theme through author readings, poetry nights and other literary events. Or in the case of Gertrude & Alice, it provides a warm, steadfast respite from the outside world.

“We created a quiet haven where the books are scattered everywhere and there are big comfy lounge chairs and great background music—it’s sort of like your lounge room at home.”

In bustling neighborhoods with ample foot traffic, a bookstore may see hundreds of customers a day. But once those eager shoppers have made their purchases, it’s very unlikely they’ll want to linger. Adding a café with comfortable seating and high-quality coffee and tea can help with the high rent that often comes with such a desirable location, by encouraging customers to stick around longer and spend more. Not only are coffee, tea and the foods that pair with them going to boost sales, but a café creates a realm of relaxation for an otherwise hurried clientele.

This example holds true at Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland. Measuring a full city block and three stories high, Powell’s is one of the world’s largest booksellers and one of Portland’s more popular tourist destinations. Not only does the Powell’s café—managed by local roaster World Cup Coffee & Tea—give patrons a place to peruse books before buying and caffeinate for the trek to the third floor, it makes visiting the literary mecca a more comfortable experience for first timers, who might be overwhelmed by the store’s color-coded rooms and sky-high shelving (fold-out maps are available for those who get turned around easily).

World Cup Coffee in Powell's City of Books in Portland.
World Cup Coffee and Tea in Powell’s City of Books in Portland. (Annalise Reinhardt.)

World Cup owner Dan Welch describes Powell’s café patrons as book-hungry regulars, “transients” and those seeking the City of Books “experience.” He says being a part of the bookstore’s magic is a definite advantage for the World Cup brand. “We stick pretty much to the Portland metro area, that’s our game, and Powell’s is a destination for visitors of Portland,” says Welch. “It brings notoriety to us because it is a marquee location in the city, and for business purposes it gives great exposure to our brand. Reciprocally, Powell’s has a specialty-quality coffee they can offer their customers.”

Another way to capitalize on literature’s mystique is by weaving the theme into your café: The Dolphin Bookshop offers a menu of sandwiches named after famous books (Catcher in the Rye, Under the Tuscan Sun), while World Cup sells an exclusive roast, the Bookworm Blend, at its Powell’s location. Similarly, at Red Lodge the culinary section is full of books on tea for patrons hoping to learn more after perusing the tea bar’s impressive offerings.

It’s important to build out your bookstore café in a way that best suits your shop’s needs. Robson at Red Lodge notes that coffee shops have an “energetic” atmosphere, so he opted for a relaxing tea bar instead. Literary happenings and live music make sense at The Dolphin in Port Washington, but at Gertrude & Alice events limit lounge time for regulars and are mainly reserved for special occasions. Determine the type of shop you want to have—is it laid-back or lively? Modern or Old World? Then craft your customer experience around that vision.

Carving out a niche will also set your shop apart. Maybe you focus on a literary genre (cookbooks work well aside coffee and tea) or stick to pour-overs and manual-brew methods—having a theme gives your shop individuality. This is also good advice if you’re working with a smaller space, such as an existing café with minimal shelving.

Regardless of how you build your business, it never hurts to make a shop more versatile and welcome in a new type of customer. History shows that books and beverages are the perfect fit, so adding great literature or high-quality coffee and tea to your offerings is virtually guaranteed to draw attention.

—Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor.