We Can’t Let Bookstore Cafés Die

In-store coffee shops are a vital part of the literary community.

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As a teen in the early 2000s, both Borders and Barnes & Noble were the local hangs. They were the first places I ordered coffee, grabbing a small cup at the in-store café before spending hours browsing the shelves, hurrying to read as much of a book or obscure magazine as I could before someone’s mom came to pick us up. But as big-box bookstores have shuttered and independent shops are struggling to survive (and keep workers safe) while still in a pandemic, there are fewer and fewer in-store cafés encouraging folks to linger in bookstores. What does the future of these gathering spaces look like?

The pros and cons of bookstore cafés, according to booksellers

Back in 2010, the American Booksellers Association hosted a roundtable with independent shop owners discussing whether or not these cafés were worth it. And while a lot has changed in the last 12 years, many of their points are still relevant today.

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The number one reason mentioned for adding a food and drink option is to increase foot traffic and encourage customers to stay longer. Customers staying longer leads to community building, which then turns into regulars coming to spend money at both the café and on books, in turn increasing revenue.

The downside to that, of course, is staffing and stocking; depending on the size of the physical café and the amount of menu offerings, you might be sinking more money into supplies and labor. If you want to add alcohol into the mix as some bookstores do, that means additional permits and training. “It’s like running another business,” one bookseller said in the roundtable. “But it can be worth it!”

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The main advice booksellers gave to others contemplating a café is to not be too ambitious. It may sound nice to have full lunch offerings for your customers, but especially if you don’t already have experience running a café you should consider going with the simplest options possible—most bookstore regulars would be satisfied with a cup of coffee.

And in modern times, safety precautions add an extra consideration into the mix. Here in Chicago many independent bookstores are still limiting the number of customers allowed inside the store, so encouraging people to gather and stick around would be counterintuitive.

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Still, we can’t let bookstore cafés die. They’re a vital part of community building and an added source of revenue for these small independent businesses, and they encourage a return to analog reading in a time of increasing screentime. If for no one else, let’s keep these spaces alive for the suburban teens who just need a place to hang.