The bookshop-that-sells-coffee model has been around for many years, and larger bookshops and chain stores still tend to devote a fair whack of floorspace to a coffee concession. That model may however be getting a little tired, especially when the collaborations don’t serve the shop or the customers that well. A visit to the flagship Barnes & Noble on Union Square in New York, whose café is co-branded with Starbucks, shows how wrong this can go: appalling coffee, sloppily served, in a poorly lit space in which glum readers flick through books and magazines with all the air of excitement and wonder of medieval penitents awaiting a thrashing (or a Venti Latte and Oreo Stack, whichever is more injurious to the constitution).
A visit to the flagship Barnes & Noble on Union Square in New York, whose café is co-branded with Starbucks, shows how wrong this can go
In London, the London Review Bookshop arguably led the way for the positive version of this model, with its separate-but-connected Cake Shop maintaining the bookshop side’s atmosphere of a place where you would actually like to spend time. Likewise, the new flagship branch of Foyles, which opened in 2014, gives over one of its six floors to a bright, clean, constantly bustling café space with good food that’s prepared on site, rather than buy-ins from big vendors. Both shops also serve a range of teas; tea has always seemed to me a better accompaniment to a book than coffee (but see below).
Smaller bookshops, too, are following the “boutique” model. At the start of 2016, novelist Betsy Tobin and artist Tessa Shaw opened Ink84 Books (84 Highbury Park, N5; ink84bookshop.com) on a leafy, pleasant high street in Islington – a London borough that has been without an independent bookshop for a decade or so. Here, staff do double duty as booksellers and baristas (they often evince concern over their coffeemaking skills, but I’ve always had good lattes from them). It’s a small space – in a pleasing reversal of the norm, Shaw and Tobin reclaimed this space from its former incarnation as an estate agent – but popular enough that the number of tables and chairs for coffee-drinkers has doubled since the shop opened. The virtue of a small shop is in the possibility of “hand-curating” the stock, and the owners use display tables to recommend not just new titles but their own favourites. Going by their chosen titles, I’d gladly sign up to the shop’s clever subscription system, too: Ink84 selects 10 books to send to subscribers over a year (or five titles across six months), for the gift that keeps on giving – even if you make yourself the recipient. There’s an emphasis, too, on “beautiful” books, like Penguin’s recent hardback reissues of Nancy Mitford’s complete works – as publishers up their game to tempt browsers with ever more attractive editions of texts, it’s good to see bookshops equally aesthetically pleasing keeping up. Better still: Ink84 opens late, and serves wine. It’s been too long since I’ve had the chance to go tipsy bookshopping.
The result is something like a literary counterpart to the slow cooking movement, reminding you to slow down, take your time, find pleasure
At Librería (65 Hanbury Street, E1 5JP; libreria.io), an offshoot of the high-tech workspace provider Second Home, books are ordered not by the traditional categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, et al, nor even by genre, but by associations: there’s a section on “Family”, another on “Cities”, and my personal favourite, “Despair and Redemption”. Within these thematic bandings – some built by the staff, others by “guest curators” – prose, poetry, drama, reference, art books are all mingled. The result is something like a literary counterpart to the slow cooking movement, reminding you to slow down, take your time, find pleasure in the lengthy browse; you can even surprise yourself by spotting yourself in the mirror at the far end of the room: that literary fop is me! For me, an intriguing kind of literalised mind-mapping occurs as I see a title I remembered seeing reviewed years ago, or a backlist book from a favourite publisher, and remember then an apparently unrelated novel that I perhaps saw reviewed around the same time, or spotted someone reading on the bus one time and promptly forgot. There’s no coffee shop here (Librería is a bit above that) – but nor are you allowed to chat on your mobile phone, giving this shop something of the air of a library (naturally), or a well-curated second-hand bookshop: you come out with “finds” more than purchases. On my last visit, I emerged with an Australian classic recently reissued in the US, an academic text on Hamlet, and a book about the tropes horror movies share with architecture.
Burley Fisher Books (400 Kingsland Rd, E8; www.burleyfisherbooks.com) is a compact and extremely well stocked new arrival in the rapidly changing strip of shops between Dalston Junction and Haggerston in East London. Fittingly for a local bookshop, it has some of the friendliest staff of any bookshop I’ve been in; you leave feeling like you’ve made friends (they always seem to be playing excellent music, too). There’s a good fiction section, three tables of newly published books, a decent range of children’s books, and a particularly good poetry section. Small presses, including & Other Stories, Fitzcarraldo Editions and Ireland’s Tramp Press, are well represented, as are even the smaller publishers of chapbooks and poetry pamphlets, and there’s an excellent selection of fiction in translation. On the front desk, the cash register shares space with an espresso machine, and through the back of the shop, there are tables and chairs for browsers to stop for a coffee or a bagel. While there’s no shortage of dedicated coffee shops fairly nearby, Burley Fisher has hit upon a good wheeze to keep customers on-site: their two-sided loyalty card offers a discount on books for every eight drinks coffees purchased, and a free coffee for every five books. If I get my book-buying and coffee-drinking balanced out, this could work out pretty well for me. C