Wake up and smell the coffee
25.04.12 | Martin Latham
Amusingly, Alan Bennett always expects recycling bin collectors to be more imaginative, empathetic figures than the landfill bin collectors. In the same way, customers expect a bookshop cafe to be more simpatico than your average shopping mall cafe. They are frequently disappointed. The bookshop cafe—“the last place you’d go in a hurry”—is so easy to get wrong, but so vital to our survival. A few Brake Brothers cupcakes and a Kenco jug do not entice, and nor does the disengaged, sometimes slack-jawed, chain barista, who could be anywhere. How extraordinary that Blackwell’s Oxford—about to host a writer like Marilynne Robinson, and the home of so much legend that they offer guided tours—has a Cafe Nero. Good though Nero is, surely Blackwell’s should aspire to something like Les Deux Magots, Sartre’s cafe-stop?
And by the way, libraries need decent cafes, too: how did the oleaginous Oliver Peyton get to run the British Library cafe? “I am not a cook, I am an impresario of pleasure,” he says—but his sullen, tray-slamming staff sing another tune.
Bookshops should eschew chain cafes. I had a chain running my cafe once, and they rarely augment bookiness. Now I have a buzzing, one-off, 50-seater independent. Soup, tarts and fishcakes are made on the premises, and Japanese tourists have emailed me for our scone recipe. Because we commemorate author visits with plaques on tables, customers, asked where they are going to sit, will say, for instance: “I’m sitting on Ted Heath.” Author talks and book launches are catered at, rather than resented. Signs encourage customers to take books into the cafe for browsing, something they are incredibly wary of. I can still recall the guilty thrill, in 1975, when I first browsed a book in the Harvard Bookstore Cafe. Was I really allowed? We need to shout this message.
Mothers are going to be a growing percentage of our customers, so cafes should have baby-changing and bottle-warming facilities. Historically, bookselling has been a frowsty, tweedy, male-run sector. Decent cafes will be part of the humanisation of bookselling.
Globally, there are book cafes so good that they seem to point the way to a rosy future for bookshops. The battered but efficient independent Foyles cafe is a hub of bookish chatter and simple, quick food; while the London Review Bookshop cafe is just the place to overhear DeLillo deconstructed. In the Cotswolds, Jaffé & Neale get almost as many rave reviews for their cakes as for their recommendations. Robert Topping called his excellent Manchester Waterstones cafe Kafka’s (and it was a Kafka-esque experience for his regional manager to stumble upon it). Aberdeen’s Books and Beans similarly weds literature and food in its name.
Derbyshire’s Scarthin Books (established 1974) is so cafe-aware that “Homemade Scones” are written as large as “Books” on its fascia. They run the only veggie cafe for miles, and display enticing footage of it on their site, with charismatic hill walkers reading Shelley and eating quinoa.
The long-running, successful stateside Trident Books (in Boston), serve a Trucker’s fry-up, but also Tibetan vegan dumplings: imaginative programming worthy of our ideas industry. Booksellers of the future will have undreamt-of ways to attract the beverage seeker. Mexico City’s Pendulo chain, with its “Cafebrerias”, routinely meld coffee with “libreria” (bookshops).
Why, exactly, do cafes go with bookshops, of all retailers? Surely it is because bookshops are about the interior life, about stopping, and being still. A bookshop without a cafe is like a dacha without a veranda.
One day, I would love to visit Massachusetts’ roomy, riverside Montague Sawmill bookshop. According to the Los Angeles Times, it has idiosyncratic shelving rules, creaky wooden floors, and its cafe is an experience spread throughout the building: “Grab a hot chocolate and find your own corner. Read, or just listen to the voices in the cafe, or the river running under the ice outside.”