Hot Coffee, Great Books

For many of us, the perfect autumnal night-in is to be curled up on the sofa, swaddled in blankets and the comfiest of clothes with a hot drink in one hand and a good book in the other. The combination of caffeine and literature is potent and the humble cup of coffee has long been the crutch for many great writers: Hemingway was supposedly addicted to the stuff, amongst his other vices, whilst Voltaire drank over 50 cups of it each day. Even Kurt Vonnegut demonstrated his passion for java by posing as one of the ‘Coffee Achievers’ in a 1984 National Coffee Association advertisement. If drinking coffee and writing has become fairly synonymous, it seems only natural that reading whilst drinking it ought to be encouraged too. And so, in order to cash in on our enduring love of coffee, many bookshops have introduced a café or coffee bar into their stores, both rewarding old customers and enticing new ones with the promise of a welcome pick-me-up beverage.

At first it seems to be a charming idea, the perfect hangout for book lovers: a place where literary types can go unmolested, browse the shelves, purchase works of fictional genius and then sit back, relax and furiously debate with like-minded souls, armed with a fortifying cup of tea. It sounds idyllic, my kind of heaven but then, perhaps is it too good to be true? What are the pros and cons of these coffee-cum-book stores – should coffee bars become a staple in today’s bookshops or should they be separated once and for all?

Gertrude and Alice bookshop/cafe in Hall Street, Bondi

For many bookshop owners, the benefits of incorporating a coffee bar into their stores are obvious. Firstly, it encourages people into the store, people who perhaps might have passed by the bookshop but pop in to buy a quick cup of coffee and end up purchasing a book as well. Working people might come to the bookshop on their lunch break and buy a book they started reading over their sandwiches. It also creates a centre for students and writers, a cooler alternative to the library where they can focus on their work in relaxed surroundings. Having all these people in a bookshop too, whether they are nursing the same coffee for six hours or not, only helps to make it look busier. Nowadays, most remaining big chain bookshops come with a coffee shop attached, making the pressure on smaller, independent bookstores to follow suit even greater. In an interview for Inreads.com, Claudia Colodro, owner of an independent bookstore in Los Angeles claimed that without the café section, her bookshop would have folded, insisting “You can’t open up an independent bookstore with just new books; it’s too hard…we knew we needed more than one business to make it work, so we combined two and made it one”.

Other bookshop owners, however, have not had such a successful experience of combining all things literary with hot beverages. On bookshopblog.com, bookstore owners share complaints about café sections bringing in the wrong clientele – young teenagers mostly, prone to loiter, throw packets of sugar at each other and who don’t even cast a passing glance at any of the books, let alone purchase one. Some have found that customers who are in the shop purely for the coffee are often ruder and more demanding than the patrons who come for the books and ask for advice on the latest must-reads. The prattle of children, the blare of mobile phones and the roar of the cappuccino machine only work as a detriment to the bookstore ambiance, rather than creating a homely, intellectual environment. Worse still, others insist that, rather than earning extra profit, selling coffee and tea simply costs them more, blaming their cafés for their financial woes and are adamant that the space taken up would have been better dedicated to, quite simply, more books!

Kurt Vonnegut enjoying a coffee

So what do you think? Are you a fan of the coffee/bookshop combination or do you believe in complete separation? Personally, I believe that introducing a café area into a bookshop, especially an independent bookshop, is a good thing. In a time when more and more libraries are being closed, it creates a space for the community, somewhere students, families, pensioners and businessmen alike can come to work, relax and, more importantly, enjoy literature. What better place to hold a reading circle or study group or even just to meet your friends? In this current economic climate, bookshops need all the extra support they can get. It’s these independent café-cum-bookstores that provide a safe haven for us bookworms; it’s there you’ll find an intellectually stimulating and buzzing atmosphere. Indeed, I feel now is the time to make a confession – I am currently in one, sitting in a very comfortable chair and writing this blog. I often feel stifled stuck indoors and these places give me the perfect spot for a bit of people watching, as well as allowing me a quiet area where I can think and focus in. And, of course, I get to enjoy a huge mug of coffee at the same time. Yes, for me, the combination of caffeine and literature seems ideal and, I believe that, quite frankly, if it’s good enough for Vonnegut, it’s good enough for me.

Briony Wickes

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