When Rebecca George decided to open up a bookstore with her sister Kimberly in 2016, she knew a few things for certain. First, it would be, above all, a community space with events nearly every day. Second, it would be in Wicker Park, where George has lived her entire adult life. And third, it would have a cafe that served not just coffee, but wine and whiskey as well. It wouldn’t just be Volumes Books. It would be Volumes Bookcafe.
“Coffee, tea, books, wine, they all kind of go together,” George says. “It’s a detachment from reality. People want to walk around after work, unwinding, browsing with a glass of wine. It’s shocking that it took us humans so long to figure it out.”
Some may argue that Chicagoans are still figuring it out. While wine and cocktails in bookstores has become something of a national trend — Atlanta, for instance, has five bookstores that serve wine — Chicago, which has more bookstores in general, has just three, and of those, only one, Kibbitznest Books, Brews, and Blarney in Lincoln Park, currently has a space where customers can sit down with a glass of wine or a cocktail and a book. Bibliophile, a bookstore and bar that served boozy baked goods, opened in Hyde Park in 2019 and closed a year later. Both Volumes and the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square closed their cafes during the pandemic, though Book Cellar customers can purchase glasses of wine to sip while they browse the shelves.
Volumes, meanwhile, let its liquor license expire after it closed the cafe because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year the landlord proposed what George calls “a ludicrous lease” that made zero concessions to the ongoing pandemic, and she and Kimberly decided to move instead. (They also have a second location without a cafe at 900 N. Michigan Avenue.) They ended up buying the first floor of 1373 N. Milwaukee Avenue — the space formerly occupied by Filter — after they discovered a monthly mortgage payment would be less than half their old rent. The store in its new location will, aside from its layout, be virtually unchanged, down to the drinks, although it may take a few months to get a new liquor license. “I’d love to get the liquor back,” George jokes, “if only for my own sake.”
The first bookseller in Chicago — and one of the first in the country — to serve wine all the time, and not just at readings, was Suzy Takacs, who in 2004 opened the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. At the time, Borders and Barnes & Noble both still had a large presence in Chicago, and all their locations had cafes that were open till 11 p.m. But they only served coffee and tea. “In my mind,” says Takacs, “I thought, people are done with coffee [by the evening] and are moving onto wine.” Plus, she adds, “book groups are all about the wine.”
Takacs quickly learned that getting a liquor license made the opening a bit more complicated. When she initially applied for her license, she was told that no one ever knows if they got a liquor license until it’s in their hand: the process requires many more hoops to jump through than it would for an ordinary bookstore, including extra fees and inspections. (The process has grown even more time-consuming during the pandemic: bar and restaurant owners have been complaining about long delays by the city.) But she was determined, and three months after she opened the store, she had a cafe with wine.
Takacs was already an oenophile, and while she accepted advice from her wine rep, she decided the guiding spirit of the store would be to encourage her customers to drink what they liked. She usually keeps six reds and six whites on hand, plus beer and ingredients for special seasonal or book-related cocktails, like peppermint schnapps hot chocolate and A Gentleman in Moscow mules.
“There’s definitely a better margin on alcohol and wine than books,” she says. “It gives people more than one reason to step in.”
Kibbitznest, for one, would never be able to stay open if it weren’t for its bar, says its founder Anne Neri Kostiner. The store itself began as a nonprofit to promote human interaction without the aid of electronics: it has never had Wi-Fi. It sold used books, donated by supporters, to pay scholars to discuss their research. Eventually it began selling new books, too, but they’re mostly academic titles with a limited audience, not the sort of best-sellers that most bookstores rely on to keep the doors open.
Other bookstores have chosen other ways to expand their profit margins. 57th Street Books in Hyde Park, owned by the nonprofit Seminary Co-op, uses retail: in its kids’ section, shoppers can find puzzles, games, and stuffed animals. “It’s a curatorial decision based on how we want that space to reflect our community,” says Clancey D’Isa, the Seminary Co-op’s director of strategy and development. In other words, 57th Street is where people, including the Obamas when they lived in the neighborhood, take their kids, not where they relax with a glass of wine.
Both 57th Street Books and the Sem Co-op are, like many neighborhood bookstores, in the middle of a commercial strip where there are already plenty of bars and cafes; the Sem Co-op is literally across the hall from the Plein Air Cafe, which sells wine, sangria, and mimosas by the glass. Unabridged Bookstore in Lakeview, likewise, is a five-minute walk from half a dozen bars and restaurants that serve wine, beer, and cocktails. D’Isa has observed that, for many customers, browsing in a bookstore is part of a regular routine between a meal and a drink. The bookstore doesn’t need to be all things to all people.
There’s also the issue of space. As George points out, city storefronts are small and expensive, and booksellers have to make hard decisions about how to fill them. Tables, chairs, espresso machines, cases of wine and beer, pastry counters, and other cafe equipment all take up space, both on the sales floor and in the storage areas. When Ed Devereux opened Unabridged in 1980, he made a conscious decision to devote all his space to books, and that has remained the store’s policy, even after it grew into the basement and neighboring storefronts. “Every time we’ve expanded, it’s always been to help or expand our book selection,” says Unabridged manager Shane Khosropour. “Getting a cafe would hinder that quite a bit.”
Other bookstores can’t spare the staff. Kibbitznest, Book Cellar, and Volumes, which all have small teams, have taught booksellers how to pour drinks as well — as long as they’re not underage, says George — and the owners have arranged the stores so staffers can go back and forth between the book sales counter and the bar.
Wine stains are not as much a concern as one might think. “People always think that,” says George, but in fact, the most memorable spills at Volumes have involved coffee and tea, not wine: one regular customer spilled matcha over a stack of copies of Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie and, as compensation, bought them all at cost and gave them away to friends. Takacs, meanwhile, is philosophical about spills and broken glasses: part of the cost of doing business.
Because that’s exactly what selling wine is: a business decision. Booksellers who don’t sell it don’t judge those who do. “One of the coolest things about bookstores is that everyone is different,” says the Sem Co-op’s D’Isa. “You can walk into four different bookstores and have four radically different spaces, but they’re all organized around the books.”
Or, as George puts it, “Selling wine helps us do what we do best.”
The Book Cellar, 4638 N. Lincoln Avenue, Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Kibbitznest Books, Brews, and Blarney, 2212 N. Clybourn Avenue, Open 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 4 p.m. to midnight Friday, 1 p.m. to midnight Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Volumes Bookcafe, 1373 N. Milwaukee Avenue, scheduled to reopen late spring 2022.