Friday, 10 May 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Café Culture

Many lament the integration of bookshops and cafés, particularly when this involves a major chain such as Starbucks or Costa, as it can aggravate people's already existing indignation that bookshops are overly commercialized places that only focus on mainstream tastes. So I ask you: yay or nay?

This has been triggered by my visit today to the Kramer Afterwords Books and Café: an independent bookstore in Washington DC that has an eatery attached. It's a clear example of an independent bookstore and café that works well: it's been there since the 1970s and is a Washington institution. The selection of books integrates classics with modern bestsellers and more obscure choices, without jacking up the prices; the booksellers are friendly; and the café itself serves good honest food. These three things alone are good basic prerequisites. If all bookshops with cafés or coffee shops within them were this pleasant, I'd be all for them.

However, there was one of my prerequisites that this establishment did not meet: greater integration between the bookshop and the café itself. While some of the café's seats (I suspect for those customers simply having a coffee and a cake) are only just inside its entrance, giving a good view of the bookshop itself, those wishing to have a full meal are ushered through to the other side of the building, taking you away from the books completely and making you feel a little divorced from the outlet's purpose.

The flagship Blackwell's outlet in Oxford does better at this, with their small café providing more intimacy and better integration with their bookshop. However, this can perhaps only apply to the café format: anything beyond a cake (or perhaps a light meal at a push) surely produces enough noise and smells to potentially bother customers who have just come in to quietly browse. Restaurant-style atmospheres can become too lively to perhaps truly cooperate well with a bookshop environment - so in this respect I can understand why Afterwords separates its eating and shopping areas more distinctly. So is it really possible to achieve the holy grail of a truly well-integrated bookshop/café model that also offers space to relax and browse?

Happily, plenty of establishments exist along these lines, leaving plenty of room for experimentation for those of us wishing to answer this question. Jaffé and Neale, in Chipping Norton, have a café as part of its bookshop, but comments on its 'about us' page suggest that the eatery element may be outside, rather than being a place inside the shop to cosy up on rainy days. The same looks like it could be true of Wigtown's ReadingLasses shop. Foyles, situated in London, also has a café, but given that it's described as the largest bookshop in Europe, as it's spread over 5 floors, I wouldn't be surprised if it all feels rather distant from the books (especially given that it sells CDs, stationery etc also).

Customers in the Bookroom Café, Brighton
One place that does appear to have got the mix right is Brighton's Kemptown bookshop, with its Bookroom Café being right among the books, and serving everything from cakes to light meals. However, I'll be waiting to see what the café looks like after its renovations are complete this year, and hoping they won't have changed this aspect of it. Equally, while Main Street Books' café looks well-integrated, it also raises its own concerns: it could all be a little too noisy, and while it clearly serves proper meals, it doesn't look like there's much space for lounging around with a mocha and a McCall Smith. Some establishments possibly go too far the other way: while the Christian community is well-known for its expertise in quiet contemplation along with tea and sympathy, some may be a little too quiet: I can promise you that I've never stepped into a bustling religious bookshop. Still, at least there are plenty to choose from, and it's possible that actually, a café could provide just the right type of invigoration for this environment.

Mr B's Emporium in Bath offers a clever compromise between busy and quiet, café and home: for a mere £3.50, you can hire a private reading booth, complete with hot beverages, a comfy chair, biscuits, headphones, and a 'do not disturb' sign on the closed door. However, you'd be unlikely to know the service was available unless you already frequented the store (the same is true of Topping and Company in Ely - they offer free coffee to customers), whereas cafés have a more visible presence to draw customers in. It's this visibility, though, that some people seem to dislike, believing it a trite technique to get people through the doors. Even if this is true, it's my view that anything that gets people closer to books is a good thing (and yes, this means also admitting through gritted teeth that if people are reading Harry Potter and Twilight then it is better than nothing at all).

Some bookshops in the UK really seem to achieve this ultimate goal of simultaneous closeness to books and beverages in both sumptuous comfort and stunning elegance. Here are my top 3 to try:

Booka, Shropshire
3. Booka (Oswestry, Shropshire)
Its elegant tables and chairs sit right among the books without being an imposition, and perhaps the best bit? Themed cupcakes to tie in with their events. 
Booth's, Hereford

2. Richard Booth's Bookshop (Hay-on-Wye, Hereford)
This lush, luxuriant and skylit setting will make your jaw drop, as will its café menu (which includes brunch) and mixture of second-hand, new and antique books.
The Hours, Brecon
1. The Hours (Powys, Brecon)
Its wooden beams and cosy lighting basically mean that pub meets bookshop in this delightful Welsh setting. Light meals, sticky toffee apple pudding, and Fairtrade coffee await among books with a proud Welsh heritage.

And for your little ones? Get comics and cakes at Barefoot Books in Oxford. Meanwhile, all of this reading around (and eating in my mind) has got me wondering what bookshop cafés I can ferret out in Paris. Cafés in bookshops? Heck, I think Sartre would approve.

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