Coffee Talk: Booksellers on the Pros and Cons of Bookstore Cafés – Part I

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Whether looking for a way to increase margin, responding to customers’ pleas for caffeine, or just because coffee and books are such a natural, booksellers have been including cafés in their bookstores for years. But are they worth it? The majority of booksellers who spoke to BTW say they can be.

The Decision

Whether or not to add a café is probably one of the biggest decisions a bookstore owner can make.

At BookSmart in Morgan Hill, California, owners Brad Jones and Cinda Meister planned to include a café in their bookstore from the start. “We've been in the food biz practically all of our lives, and we knew that it would help increase foot traffic in the store,” said Jones. “We also visited other stores around the area and liked the feel of the bookstore/café/coffee shop.”

Twenty-five years ago, Chuck Robinson decided that Village Books in Bellingham, Washington, would benefit from having a café after he observed cafés at the likes of Kramer Books & Afterwords, The Elliott Bay Book Company, and the now-closed Oxford Books in Atlanta. Robinson noticed that these bookstores “seemed to be successfully drawing folks in and keeping them longer.”

For established booksellers the perfect opportunity to add a café sometimes comes when they’re drawing up plans for a store relocation. When Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, Washington, moved across the street, owner Suzanne Droppert made sure to add an espresso bar. It didn’t matter that the new store would be flanked by coffee shops and that, in her neighborhood, a suburb of Seattle, “there is coffee on every corner,” customers wanted their coffee at book clubs, events, writing, and knitting groups.

The owners of Watermark Books & Café in Wichita, Kansas; Prince Books in Norfolk, Virginia; and Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico, also deliberately looked for a location that had enough space for a café when they relocated. Adding a café to Collected Works fit the bookstore’s mission to be a “community gathering spot,” said Mary Wolf. “The café is now a key part of what we offer our customers: great books and great service in an inviting atmosphere that encourages lingering and is well suited to hosting events both small and large.”

Emoke B’Racz, owner of Malaprop's Bookstore/Café in Asheville, North Carolina, cited her “European upbringing” and own interests for including a café. “I liked getting a book and drinking my cappuccino, while I dove into my new treasure,” she said.

Variations on a Theme

Adding a café can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Whether it’s a coffee bar, a small café, a café with a full kitchen, or a full café run independently, there are options. And the menu can be ramped up slowly.

Although BookSmart’s Jones and Meister had restaurant experience, they started with limited food service in their 1,800-square-foot café, which includes an 800-square-foot kitchen. They began serving coffee, ice cream, and soup and later added hotdogs, sandwiches, chili, grilled cheese, and BLTs. For dessert, there are scones, cookies, and ice cream. “All stuff that can be made very quickly and with a hot plate and a microwave,” said Jones.

Liberty Bay’s espresso bar, which is at the back of the 1,500-square-foot store, features two tables, two overstuffed chairs, and a couch. The café serves espresso drinks, frappes, Italian sodas, and root beer floats in summer. In the morning, toast is sold for 65 cents. To serve wine at book clubs meetings and other events, Droppert obtained a wine permit from the state liquor board for $10.

Droppert’s original plan was to partner with a neighboring business by opening a wall to the existing espresso bar, but “complications arose regarding what type of stock I was carrying,” she said. So Droppert made the decision to go solo. “Nice owner,” she said. “But it was a good decision to do it on my own.”

At Watermark Books, Sarah Bagby explained, “We opened the café because of customer demand for coffee. Our plan was to have a few pastries and coffee. We have grown into a full-service, made-from-scratch deli that caters parties, special events in the store, and business lunches. When we moved to our current location, we had the space, so we hired a local restaurant owner to prepare a business plan. Since we all liked to cook and knew how, we made our ‘signature’ recipes. We offered them to our book customers and couldn’t turn back – even when we wanted to!”

The 5,000-square-foot Watermark devotes about a fifth of its space to the café and kitchen, and all of the food and coffee is made on site.

Watermark doesn’t serve alcohol, but book clubs and other groups can bring in a bottle of wine if they are meeting and eating at the store. “It has to be a limited group with attendance by invitation only,” said Bagby.

Village Books currently has two independently run cafés that are subleased. Both have evolved with the bookstore. “The first café, the Colophon Café, changed sizes a few times – beginning at around 1,500 square feet and ending up now at about 3,500, or perhaps a bit more,” said Robinson. Book Fare Café was added to the mezzanine section of the store’s new building in 2004, and is about 2,000 square feet. When the first café was added, the store was about 2,200 square feet. By the time the second was added, the store had grown to about 10,000 square feet. The cafes and bookstore are all part of the same building. 

Both cafés serve sandwiches, soups, salads, desserts, and beer and wine. One also serves some wraps. The Colophon developed a reputation for serving great soups, said Robinson, beginning with African Peanut Soup.

Like Village Books, Prince Books also has an independent café, which has seen several incarnations. The bookstore itself opened in 1982. When Prince Books moved to its present location in 1994, the decision was made to open with a café. “My sales rep encouraged me to contact Carla Cohen [the late co-owner of Politics & Prose], which I did,” said Prince Books owner Sarah Pishko. “We spent the night up in D.C., and Carla was very generous with her time and gave us advice, none of which I remember now!”

The café at Prince Books is now run by Pishko’s brother, who owns another a small café in Virginia Beach. The Lizard at Prince Books occupies 600 square feet of the 2,200-square-foot bookstore. Its focus is on lunch, not coffee, and it has an extensive menu of soups, salads, sandwiches on homemade bread, and homemade desserts. The Lizard pays rent and its share of electricity and has its own staff and telephone numbers.

The café at Malaprop’s, which is about 20 percent of the entire 5,000-square-foot bookstore, serves locally baked pastries, sweet and savory baked goods, bagels, trail mix snacks, and fruit. It features an espresso machine and serves specialty drinks, as well as a line of high-quality teas and juices. The staff makes Italian sodas, hot chocolate, and a cold high-octane/sugar blended coffee drink called the Mocha Brain Freeze. The coffee is locally roasted, and most blends are organic. Malaprop’s house blend has become a favorite with booksellers, baristas, and customers.

Collected Works’ new location is roughly 4,700 square feet, of which about 800 square feet is dedicated to the café, although the “boundaries are fuzzy and flexible,” said Wolf. “Our café area doubles as our reading/signing/event space, and for very large events it can be expanded to 1,500 square feet or so.”

Collected Works doesn’t have a kitchen, but its café is still able to offer a wide range of food and drinks, including a full espresso drink menu, featuring locally roasted, organic coffee and all organic dairy and non-dairy (soy, rice milk, etc.) products, teas, juices, lemonade, and locally made kombucha tea. It also sells baked goods, pastries, muffins, pies, cakes, quiche, salads, soups, and chocolates, all from local restaurants and catering companies.

Supporting other Santa Fe businesses is an important part of Wolf’s operating philosophy. “All of our food is prepared offsite and is either picked up daily or delivered daily – we do not have a kitchen,” she stressed. “We try to keep it local, local, local and offer things that other cafés in our area of Santa Fe don't offer. For instance, there's a popular restaurant on the other side of town that wins awards every year for its pies. We approached them about supplying us with their pies, and now we are the only other place in Santa Fe that carries their pies and desserts. Then we noticed really nice packaged salads at our local farmers market, made with locally grown greens, so we approached those folks and we now carry their salads.”


Cafés can run the gamut, from requiring no additional staffing to needing a team of a dozen or more employees and a café manager. One of the advantages of hosting an independent café is that there are little or no additional staffing concerns/costs.

At Liberty Bay, with its small espresso bar, no additional staff support is needed. Booksellers double as baristas, Droppert said. “Everyone that works here has to have a health card and know how to make the drinks.”

BookSmart’s café is a solo operation – one person does everything from cleaning to cooking to watering the plants.

Collected Works has a large menu, but since the food is prepared offsite, the café only needs one staff person on duty at a time. Wolf outlined the schedule: “A staff person arrives one hour before opening to set up and start brewing coffee, etc., and the closing staff person stays one half-hour after closing to clean up. That means we have a staff person dedicated to the café from 7:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. six days a week, and from 7:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. At the moment, we employ five people to cover all 79 of those hours. Some baristas work more hours than others.”

Bigger cafés not only require additional employees, but also more care-taking by management. “We have a café manager and nine part-time baristas,” said Malaprop’s mananger Linda Barrett Knopp. “Our café is open the same hours as the store. As general manager, I meet with the café manager weekly (and pretty much daily, plus there’s constant e-mail correspondence) to go over running of the café.”

“It’s like running another business,” said Watermark’s Bagby. “But it can be worth it!” The Wichita bookstore originally added three people, but the café staff has since grown to about 12 employees with a separate café manager. Only the manager is full time.

Watch for Part 2 of Bookstore Cafés next week. Booksellers will discuss using cafés for events, how cafés affect the bottom line, some café caveats, and more. To learn about adding a beer or wine bar to the bookstores, see “Books + Booze, an Old (and Profitable) Mix.”