Not only does the new Bittersweet Books & Coffee have the distinction of being the only bookstore in Americus, Georgia; it is also, uniquely, housed within a renovated 19th century opera house in the city’s historic downtown.
The 2,000-square-foot bookstore and coffee shop owned by attorney couple Elena Albamonte and Chuck Faaborg opened in May and has since become a haven where community members can find new and used books for all interests; browse a wide selection of vintage and new comic books; and indulge in gourmet chocolates, coffee, and desserts at the store’s café.
“For this town, it’s a very unique kind of store,” said Albamonte of the business whose name was chosen to reflect “the balance everyone desires, just enough of this, just enough of that,” according to the store’s website.
“We wanted our bookstore to be a sort of community hangout place, where everybody would be comfortable,” Albamonte said. “So you might come in on a Saturday and see people who are 80 sitting in the café having some cheesecake; you might see toddlers running around in the children’s section and see a group of 20-year-olds in the comic book section.”
Bittersweet, which is divided evenly between the bookstore and café, features an entire room in the back filled with 6,000 vintage and new comic books and graphic novels.
“The comic book room was a mixture of Chuck’s memories of comic book stores in Iowa, where he grew up, and the current trend of Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic card tournaments. We wanted a place where comic and gaming fans could browse and play card games,” Albamonte said.
Along with weekly Yu-Gi-Oh! gaming lessons and Magic card tournaments, the kid-friendly store features “Milk and Cookie Mondays,” which offer children under 12 free unlimited milk and cookies all day long.
The store’s staff of 12, which includes a former employee of Books-A-Million, is required to know both the book and coffee aspects of the business. Staff members received café training from a representative of Florida-based coffee supplier Lucky Goat Coffee.
“Our staff is enthusiastic about both books and coffee. They’re constantly experimenting with new flavors and coffee [foam] art,” said Albamonte, who, along with Faaborg, attended the Coffee Fest trade show in Atlanta in February to learn more about the art of coffee making and to find quality products.
Bittersweet occupies the first floor of a two-story building whose top floor, which has not yet been renovated, still features the trappings of the original Glover Opera House, built circa 1892.
The renovation of the bookstore’s space began in March 2014. Workers took down walls to reveal the building’s handsome brick; exposed the posts in the center of the floor; removed a dropped ceiling left over from the 1960s and ’70s; and replaced all flooring.
“Now it’s just a really, really beautiful, very bright space,” said Albamonte, who still devotes much of her time to the new law practice she opened in the office next door to the bookstore. The arrangement, she said, has proven a little hectic at times.
“It’s almost like part bookstore/part law practice. It gets kind of crazy in here. People will be running in saying, ‘We’re out of half and half!’ while I have a client in my office,” Albamonte said.
“There are so many moving parts. Having the coffee shop and the bookstore and the comic book room — it’s like having three stores in one, plus having these other jobs. It does make it kind of hard to keep track of everything, but we’re getting better.”
Albamonte is currently thinking about more ways to bring children into the store. At the moment, the children’s section features a book nook in the form of a child-sized “doghouse,” which has proven to be a big draw for the younger set. The nook was designed by a local carpenter, who also built the café’s coffee bar and constructed the comic book boxes in the back room.
“I’m concentrating on our children’s section right now,” Albamonte said. “The only other place in Americus that really sells books is Walmart and they don’t have a very good children’s section at all. I thought we would make the children’s department as good as we could and then work on the YA section next and kind of move around that way.”
Bittersweet’s owners are using Facebook to get the word out about the store, but they also plan to advertise in local newspapers. Faaborg, who is not practicing law at the moment, owns several newspapers, so the store is planning to send out a monthly Pennysaver-style newsletter featuring its café menu, author event and story time listings, and possibly author interviews.
Among its author events to date, Bittersweet has hosted a book signing by Jim Auchmutey, whose The Class of ’65: A Student, A Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness (PublicAffairs) is about the desegregation of Americus High School in 1964, and Georgia Southwestern professor Jonathan M. Bryant, author of Dark Places of the Earth: The Voyage of the Slave Ship Antelope (Liveright) on August 29.
When it comes to stocking the store, Albamonte, who has no previous retail experience, said, “I’m just ordering books I like and what I think people will like… I’ve been going to all the different bestseller lists to figure out what people are buying…. I only order one or two of each type of book. It’s such a small town, so I’d rather order 500 different titles and make it interesting than have 10 of the same thing.”
Bittersweet currently carries books by and about former President Jimmy Carter, who lives 20 minutes from Americus in Plains, Georgia, as well as books on Southern and Civil War history, since Andersonville, the site of the notorious Civil War prison, is close by. The store also focuses on stocking books by local and Southern authors and a variety of fantasy and young adult books.
At the store’s café, customers can choose from a line of four signature teas, roasted coffee and espresso drinks, and frappes. Food offerings include vegan and gluten-free chocolates from Cocopotamus in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which gives their truffles names like Darth Vegan and The Vegan Mary. To accommodate all nutritional needs, the café also sells original and gluten-free cookies from Alternative Baking Company and gourmet gluten-free oatmeal from Oregon-based Straw Propeller Gourmet Foods, which comes in flavors like peanut butter and jelly and apple crisp.