A Cafe or Coffee Bar in the Public Libraries. Realistic or Not?

Why question the reality of a cafe in a public library when there are successful ones already in existence. The question should be what is the purpose of a cafe/coffee bar. One argument could be to increase circulation and bring in new patrons. Through out the history of the public library “non-book related activities” as well as book related activities were used to stimulate the use of books. A recent example of a non-book related activity is the fishing tackle loaner program at the Bridgeport library. Lectures, exhibits and even the children’s summer reading program had been introduced for this purpose. These were so successful that the programs are still being used today. The idea of serving food in the library is not a new idea either. Any time the library held an event food had been served. More librarians will have to rethink the concept of food and the library and look at what a cafe could be, a business or service. Looking at it this way a cafe is just enhancing the library services.

I found in my research that this idea of a cafe, coffee bar or lounge has already been implemented in quite a few libraries very successfully. Yet as I gathered my data I found that there was no quantitative data to support the idea that a coffee bar would bring in new patrons or increase circulation. Most of the literature described what was served and how a few patrons felt about having food and drinks in the library. One library patron commented on “..It is great,... It’s very convenient.” A mother at the Roseville Public library commented that whenever she and her daughter go to the library they always stop for a treat at the cafe. The other comments where about why the idea of some type of food service was a good idea for a public library. “More libraries are responding to readers who are drawn to the atmosphere of bookstore chain.” Another response was to “..foster a comfortable environment...” In the Article from New York Times “Quiet, Please We’re Sipping”, the library Directory Maxine Bleiweis, hoped to draw more people into the library by setting up a cafe, the Cup and Chaucer. This has been up and running since February of 1997 and now it seems normal to them to have people walking around the library with a cup in their hands. Ms Bleiweis also feels that the food services shows people that the library “..is an up-to-date place”.

The cafe or coffee bar has a variety of range in sizes, from the smallest (vending machine) to a full scale operation, to just serving coffee to serving meals. The Camden County Library (NJ) has a small self contained unit that services coffee. In the first 7 months of operation it didn’t do too well since “it was located in an out of the way corner”. When they moved the unit to a more central location it did very well, but it did not increase the circulation over all. The Friends of the library service the unite, not the library staff. They also funded the electrical changes needed to install the cart. Since the service contract is with the Friends they receive 12% of the gross sales each month. Drinks are allow in the library but only if it is covered, so far there has been no spillage. This venture was not used to increase circulation, ”.. our main object was to enhance the library services for patrons who used us.” The other type of venture is a large cafe with a lounge. Saratoga Springs Public Library (NY) has an “espresso bar” that take up 1,000 sq.ft. of the 58,000 sq.ft. of the library. This is an leased area that a local business operates. Harry Dutcher, the Director offered a few suggestions if anyone is considering such a venture. First make it big, and part of the library, with an exterior entrance when the library is not open. You might also think about making it an internet cafe. Also consider the practical ideas as well, utilities, ventilation, trash removal etc. He feels that the “cafe does more to make the library a community center”. Another large enterprise is the Multnomah County Library in Portland Oregon, one of the first expresso bars inside a library. At the time they were going through a renovation and added a 173 sq.ft. coffee bar in the library. To make it a success they decided to outsource and allow a vendor, Starbucks, to operate the service and pay a monthly rent. For them a lot of planning went into this, a proposal was drawn up which one can view at their web site, www.multnomah.lib.or.us/lib/entre/. Patrons are allowed to take their drinks to the PC or walk through the stacks browsing for a book. At this time they claim that “80 percent of residents have library cards..and circulation of over 8 million items a year..”. The coffee bar was only one means that help them achieve this. For Multnomah this is a business venture. As part of the contract with Starbucks, they agreed to help sponsor library activities. They had provided some unique campaigns to lure in patrons as well as help the library with other events. In Libres the article on Library Cafes: Next Logical Step, he comments that having a cafe would make good business sense and not just in profits. Libraries will need to keep up with today’s changing world, with the competition of bookstore chains and the online information delivery in homes.

Between these two extremes many other libraries have opened cafes. The Farmington library (CT) has the Dewey Cafe, which is a small coffee cart and Newington’s (CT) Lucy Robbins Wells Library has the Cup & Chaucer Cafe. The library opened the Cup & Chaucer to make the library more attractive to people. They got the idea from the Friends of the library who provided the funds, the rest came from a local resident, Ruth Pape. The Hartford Public Library(CT) has a cappuccino bar, which is a coffee cart, there is a Friend’s Cafe in Los Altos Library (CA), Parsippany Library, Brooklyn Main Library (NY), Burlington County (NJ) and many others I have not mentioned.

Yet to support the idea that having a cafe will increase circulation still is not conclusive. There is no quantitative data to validate this conclusion. The Ramsey County Library (MI) in April of 1997 opened a coffee shop at the Roseville Library. Since then there has been an increase in their circulation, about 8%,. Katy Larnet and Wesley Chotkowski did a brief study of the “Cup & Chaucer” at the Lucy Robbins Welles Library to see if there was any way to validate the increase in circulation. Larnet found, like I did that there was no quantitative studies of this nature. They proposed to compare two months, before the cafe opened and after the cafe opened to see if this would show a change in circulation. There was a slight increase in the month during the cafe service over the non-cafe month. They were only comparing two months (March 1996 and March 1997) and felt that the information was too limited for them to draw any real conclusions. If there was no real validity that opening a food service would increase the circulation why have it at all. The theme running through most of these libraries was not circulation but convenience and a more friendly environment.

Comfort is a main theme in large bookstore chains. They are trying to create an ambiance much like a library. When one steps into a large chain like “Barnes & Noble” immediately there are comfortable chairs to relax in, encouraging customers to linger. If that’s not enough to entice, books talks, book signings etc., are some of the activities used to lure in customers. One article mentioned that the New York-based Barnes & Noble has wider aisles, toys for the kids to play with, music and more. Sounds like they plan to be a community center. To encourage customers to linger even more there is a coffee counter so you don't need to leave to take a break. This creates a feeling of a homey place where people can socialize and take their time browsing. Barnes & Noble is not the only large book store chain there is Borders and Waldenbooks, a mall book store. Waldenbooks opened up a new superstore in Stamford CT called Basset to invoke a more warm feeling to their stores. Does this really compete with a public library where materials are free, for ultimately the purpose of the bookstore chains are to sell books. Most of the bookstores business is generated on weekends. They offer late hours, some are opened to ll:00 p.m. This is a very attractive alternative to the library, especially when they are not open. In a recent article in Library Journal, Feb. 1, 1998 Renee Feinberg a professor and Reference Librarian at Brooklyn College noticed how college students used a Barnes & Noble like a library. She asked 20 college students why they used the bookstore like a library. Some of the responses where that the collection was more up to-date and specialized. They like the relaxed atmosphere, that lets them browse and schmooze. The library was fine for research, but the bookstore allowed for a more friendlier place to study. There were other reasons that the students preferred Barnes & Noble, frustrated with limited hours, books out, insufficient copies etc., as well as the stuffiness of the library. Public libraries do have a more relaxed atmosphere but what do patrons do when they need a break. Most just leave and don’t return. Those who have implemented a cafe, coffee bar or lounge in their public libraries did notice what the bookstore chains were doing and how it appealed to the customers. At the Hartford Public library they added the coffee cart to ..”make our customers more comfortable.......way of enriching the library atmosphere.”

The idea of books and food not being in close contact has long been the view of libraries. One major concern with the idea of having food in the library is damages to books. Barnes & Noble can return most lightly used or unsold books back to the publishers, libraries cannot. Recently this topic of food in public libraries was being discussed on two listserves Conntech and PUBLIST. Someone thought the idea of having food in the library was not a good idea, they worried about bugs, mice and damage to the books. Most of the comments I read were from libraries who already have a cafe or coffee unit. Those who responded saw very little in damage. In fact one commented that it was a logical step to take, ..“Beside, people take library books home and read them with coffee and pop and at dinner all the time. And very few items come back damaged, ...”. There is also the concern of who will staff the coffee bar and the cost of starting it up. These are valid concerns but those who started up cafe, lounge, or coffee bar look at the benefits to the library patrons, not necessarily the library. Feeling in the long run the library would benefit. At the Dewey Cafe the library is ..seeking to foster a comfortable environment....we are pleased to once again provide this service to our library customers..”. They were looking to have a more relaxed and open place for their patrons.

Instead of counting on a cafe or coffee bar to increase circulation the libraries will have to relook at what kind of service this would provide. Those libraries that have already implemented this type of food service in their library have had positive feed back and feel that there is a slight increase in the traffic at the library. The reality is that there are successfully run cafes, coffee units, coffee bars or some type of food service. Many are willing to share their experiences to help other libraries start up. To compete with what is going on today and keep the patrons coming back, the libraries need to develop new gimmicks that are not too different from the loaning fishing gear program at the Bridgeport Library or loaning toys, like puppets. We want to lure in patrons and hope once they have discovered the library they will come back. Also, hoping to entice that certain person who hasn't used a public library in quite some time.

Selective Bioliography Complied by Robin Henderson

Ndibe O. “Cup and Chaucer Adds a Bit of Cafe atmosphere to Welles Library”. Hartford Courant, February 4, 1997 pg.B1

Dee JE. “Books and Biscotti: Library’s Patrons flock to Cup & Chaucer Cafe”. Hartford Courant, April 28, 1997 pg.B3

“Dewey’s Cafe to Reopen at Framington Library”. Hartford Courant, January 3, 1998 pg.B3

Burns C. "Quiet, Please, We're Sipping: Libraries Invite Users to Check Out Their New Cafe." New York Times, September 9,1997: B1&B5

Kimball J. "Patrons Checking Out Roseville's Library"s Java Around St. Paul." Tribune, September 8, 1997

Goerne C. "Now Book browsers can munch brownies as they shop for Browning." Marketing News July 6, 1992 v26 no.14 :1,9

Krashen S. "Eating and reading in the library." Emergency Librarian May 1, 1996 v23 no.5 :27

Pierce W. "Library Cafes: Next Logical Step." Libres:Library and Information Science Research Mach 31 1997 v7 no.1 Internet

Carvajal D. "Reading the bottom line: With all these people hanging out and sipping expresso how does Barnes & Noble actually make any money?" New York Times April 6 1997

Mclaughlin J. "Books: Reading is more than just fundamental at new-age cafes -it's a great way to bring in business." Restaurant Business May 1 1996

Allen D. "Libraries Aren't Bookstores, and Patrons aren't Customers." American Libraries August 1997 v28 no.7 :38

Feinberg R. "B&N: The new College Library." Library Journal February 1, 1998 :49-51

Coffman S. "What if you ran your library like a Bookstore?" American Libraries March 1, 1998 v29 no.3 :40-44

Siegel LA. "Libraries Shelve their Stuffy Image: They're pulling in people with social services and cafes." Christian Science Monitor August 7, 1997 :12

"Starbucks and library brew up Partnership." Entrepreneurial Libraries - Website April 1, 1998

Public Libraries as Culture and Social Centers: The origin of the Concept. Davis DW, Scarecrow Press Inc 1974 Chaper 4 p:61-75

Comments from the E-Mail sent from the PUBLIB listserver

Ramsey County Library, MN

Camden County Library, NJ

Saratoga Springs Public Library, NY

Lucy Robbins Welles Library, Newington , CT - Cup & Chaucer Cafe

Friends' Cafe    in the lobby of the Los Altos Library, Los Altos, CA

Comments from the Archives of the PUBLIB   and Publib-Net Electronic Discussion

Comments from the Conntech listserve

Return To Home Page.......