That Cozy Bookstore Café


That Cozy Bookstore Café

While a café seems the natural complement to a bookstore, successful proprietors point out that a delicate balance is required for each business to succeed on its own terms


To booksellers Chuck and Dee Robinson, the idea of operating a bookstore café once seemed, at the very least, unwise. “We figured there were two great ways to lose money in business: one was bookstores and the other was restaurants. It seemed crazy to put them together.”

Now that Village Books, their bookstore in Bellingham, Wash., shares its space with a thriving café, the Robinsons look upon the combination of the two businesses more optimistically. But while the addition of the Colophon Cafe has significantly increased his book sales, Chuck Robinson still stops short of recommending the idea without reservation to other booksellers. He acknowledges that the marriage of the two enterprises holds great potential, but cautions that “it won’t work under just any circumstances.”

No matter how natural it may seem to a booklover to offer books and a place to peruse them over coffee as well, the two businesses place different demands on the proprietor. Booksellers who run successful cafés are quick to point out the difficulties first; beneath the immediate appeal of a bookstore café, they say, lies a potentially disastrous array of complications: the food and book businesses require different handling at every level, from ordering, storage and preparation to customer presentation and personnel requirements.

Bill Kramer has operated the bookstore café, Kramerbooks & Afterwords, in Washington, D.C., since 1976. He warns that booksellers who are vague about their purposes in opening a café “are not going to make it. You’ve got to have a very strong vision, and you’ve got to work very hard to make it happen. If you think the book business is difficult physically, then try the restaurant business.” Rupert LeCraw, owner of Oxford Books and its Cup & Chaucer café in Atlanta, compares the pace of the two enterprises: “The problems of running a café are a lot more volatile than the problems of running a bookstore. If you have bad service or you serve somebody food that isn’t correctly prepared, you hear about it immediately.” LeCraw also points to a potential management difficulty when he observes that “the type of person who works in a restaurant is completely different from the type who works in a bookstore.” And perhaps most important, according to Kramer, is adequate capital—”It can take a long time to ride out your mistakes.”

But if the risks of opening a café in a bookstore are considerable, so are the rewards. Andy Ross, owner of Cody’s Books and Cafe in Berkeley, Calif., maintains that once a café hits its stride it can “make a lot of money very quickly,” because profit margins can be quite high. And a café need not even be highly profitable to be considered a success; LeCraw is happy if his Cup & Chaucer makes only a slight profit, since the café’s primary function is to “add an extra dimension” to the bookstore—to draw more people and encourage them to stay longer.

Whether its business plan is modest or grand, these owners agree, a café can have a dramatic impact on bookstore sales. When Kramer’s café began operation six weeks after the opening of the bookstore, book sales took an immediate 25% leap. For Chuck Robinson, whose Village Books had been in business for five years when he invited his friend Ray Dunn to open the Colophon Cafe in the store, the sales figures were even more impressive: in the first six months the café was in operation, book sales were up 46% over the previous year.

Sales are improved by the café, according to Robinson, not so much because the customer base for the bookstore grows, but because regular customers come back more often. Robinson acknowledges that there are some people who come just for the café. “But the biggest difference,” he emphasizes, “is that customers we used to see once every two weeks we now see three times in one week.”

Finding a Separate Identity

A bookstore won’t see increases, however, unless the café succeeds on its own terms. And it should come as no surprise to bookstore owners that location is a crucial factor in the formula. To some extent, the location requirements for a successful bookstore overlap those for a successful café. But not all good bookstore locations can support a café.

Robinson and Dunn advise adding a café only in an area where there are already a number of restaurants, and offering a bill of fare that stands out from the others. According to Kramer, three elements of his store’s location have been essential to its success: high-volume daytime foot traffic, a nearby dense residential neighborhood and a strong commercial infrastructure that draws customers for both daytime shopping and evening entertainment. The result, Kramer observes, “is that our facility has been intensively used. We’re open until midnight during the week, and Friday and Saturday we’re open 24 hours.”

The next crucial requirement is a dependable manager for the café. Robinson flatly advises bookstore owners who can’t find satisfactory restaurant managers to stay out of the business. “Running a restaurant involves more headaches than a bookseller needs,” he comments. His solution is to sublease space in the bookstore to Dunn, who owns the café business and has 17 years of restaurant experience. Both men attribute their success largely to the incentives of ownership. “The thing that is most beneficial to both our businesses,” says Robinson, “is that we each care about our own.”

Although Rupert LeCraw currently owns the balcony café in his bookstore, his preference would be to lease it out. With a small café, LeCraw observes, it is difficult to pay a salary high enough to retain a good manager. “I have had eight or nine different managers during the six years I’ve had the café, and that has been a problem. With a lease arrangement, the manager reaps the benefits of a good operation directly. He has that much more motivation to stay on and make it a success.”

The café portion of a bookstore can range in size and scope all the way from an espresso bar to a full-line restaurant. Oxford Books’ Cup & Chaucer and the Colophon Cafe in Robinson’s Village Books are relatively small operations. Cup & Chaucer takes up a total of about 600 square feet, compared to about 10,000 square feet of selling space in the bookstore. In terms of sales per square foot, the café brings in about $250 per year compared to $380 for the bookstore. Ray Dunn’s Colophon Cafe occupies about 850 square feet of Village Books’ floor space, compared to 3200 of selling space for the bookstore. The annual gross book sales of $600,000 are up from $390,000 before the café opened in the summer of 1985.

Kramerbooks & Afterwords and Cody’s Café are larger and correspondingly more ambitious restaurants. Counting an outdoor seating area of 900 square feet, Kramer’s café takes up nearly 2000 square feet, over twice the space devoted to books. For 1986, says Kramer, café and bookstore will bring in over a million and a half in gross sales each. Andy Ross’s Berkeley café occupies about 3000 square feet (including greenhouse seating of 600 square feet), while bookstore selling space amounts to 11,000 square feet. Opened late in 1986, the café brought in $50,000 in its first month of operation, gained 20% in its second month and by year-end was rapidly approaching the break-even point.

Encouraging Cross-Flow

For the symbiotic business arrangement to work, the design relationship between café and bookstore is critical; and restaurant design, according to Ross, is “considerably more complex than bookstore design.” For the book-store, he explains, “we basically needed a great big room with a lot of bookshelves; but for the café we needed to design the kitchen, do electrical work and complex lighting and figure out the seating.”

Kramer recalls that when he and his managers were planning Kramerbooks & Afterwords (which they envisioned from the start as a bookstore café), they had “a very distinct idea that the two were functionally different operations and should have functionally different spaces to the greatest extent possible.” Kramer feels that the two components should be physically separated but give a feeling of interaction. He is critical of some bookstore cafés in which “to get your food to your table you have to weave your way through the bookcases, or you’re sitting down against a wall of books. It’s an impediment to people who want to look at books and an intrusion on people who want to eat.”

To give the impression that the two operations are interrelated while maintaining a physical barrier, Kramer designed what he calls “bookstore bar units.” These four-foot-high cases serve on one side as bookshelves and on the other side as a bar “to put an elbow or a drink on.” They form the only physical separation between the two parts of the business. As a result, says Kramer, “people in the café, especially upstairs in the mezzanine, can watch the activity in the bookstore and people in the bookstore can see what’s happening in the café.”

The division between Robinson’s Village Books and the Colophon Cafe is subtly marked by a change from hardwood floor to carpeting, and by a few carefully placed display cases. The Robinsons have made a conscious effort to draw potentially book-resistant café customers into the bookstore through the merchandise displayed near the café. “The first thing they see is tapes,” Chuck explains. “Then bargain books. People coming in from the café are less likely to be regular bookstore people, and more interested initially in tapes and gift books.”

Rules and Regulations

Encouraging interaction between the bookstore and the café, of course, brings the bookseller up against the problem of whether to allow customers to take unpurchased books into the café, or food into the bookstore. The policy set by a store depends largely on the design and how closely the two operations are integrated. At the Cup & Chaucer, which is completely contained within the bookstore, customers are allowed to take books into the café without paying for them. In Cody’s Books and Cafe, by contrast, the two are quite distinct and have separate street entrances; bookstore customers have to pass through the cashier lanes and pay for books in order to enter the café through a connecting passageway.

In the early days of Kramerbooks & Afterwords, there was no stated policy about food and books, which led to infrequent but uncomfortable confrontations between worried staffers and customers taking unpurchased books into the café. The store now has posted signs asking customers to pay for books before taking them into the café. “Staff and customers shouldn’t have to ask if a book is or should be paid for,” Kramer explains. “With a clear policy, there’s no chance of misunderstanding on anyone’s part.”

In fact, situations where customers damage books by taking food into the bookstore are rare. “It’s not a problem,” says Kramer, “or to the extent that it is, it’s just the cost of doing business.” At Village Books, a small sign asks customers to be careful with food in the bookstore. ‘We try to discourage people from wandering through the store with food, but we haven’t been heavy-handed about it,” says Robinson. “There are problems occasionally, but not enough to worry about.”

Finding the Balance

An irony in the bookstore café business is that while the café is designed to improve the bookstore’s business by encouraging customers to linger, lingering can hurt the café’s business. As Ross explains, “people who go into the café are renting space, and you have to let them do it. But it’s a problem during rush hour, because we also serve lunches and dinners. If we’re filled up, we would rather have people vacate their space than nurse a cup of coffee, but we can’t ask them to leave. It’s an unresolved dilemma for us.”

There is little concern among these bookstore café owners, however, that the restaurant concerns might eventually overwhelm the books. The consensus is that the balance between the two operations takes care of itself. As Bill Kramer remarks, “there are people who know us only as a restaurant, and others who know us only as a bookstore. But the fact that they come back repeatedly means that sooner or later they’re going to take advantage of both.” It is the combination of the two businesses, Kramer emphasizes, that attracts many of his customers. “There are very few bookstores to which people would go on a date. But a lot of people go out on dates to Kramerbooks & Afterwords. People like coming here, and they come often. And that’s the whole idea.”

Bethune is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles.