The hybrid of two of our favourite things, coffee and books, we find a handful of bookshops that will also serve us a latte.
Life used to be so single-minded. Need a shirt? Go to clothing store. Want some food to eat? Head for a green grocer. Need a plant for the balcony? Well it’s off to the nursery. But that was then. These days, stores seem stricken by multiple personality disorder, often stocking a variety of products that are sometimes hard to reconcile. Who says jeans and lamps belong together? Or that it’s perfectly okay to expect to find jewellery in a Manchester store?
But there’s one combination – the one that started it all – that seems perfectly happy. Books and coffee. It was probably along the streets of Paris’s Left Bank in the 1920s that people first made the association. Back then, scribes would write books in cafes though, not just buy them. Modern book retailers need all the help they can get, so any excuse to keep a customer in-store a few minutes longer is eagerly snatched. A coffee, tea or snack seems as good a way as any.
Sydney’s collection of bookshop cafes is nothing if not eclectic. Let’s start in the central city where Australia’s largest bookstore, Kinokuniya, is all modern and shiny. They opened here back in the '80s when Japanese retailers were expanding all over the world, but unlike the others, they stayed. Its sheer size is overwhelming enough to force you to sit down at its cafe to simply take it all in. Being Japanese, the stationary aisles are particularly alluring. But the books are the stars and it’s a fair bet that you can find any book you are looking for, and many more you never realised you needed. The cafe though is ersatz at best, so pop around the corner and have your coffee at the city’s best, Bambini Trust in Elizabeth Street overlooking Hyde Park.
In Bondi, five minutes from the sand of Sydney’s most famous beach, sits Gertrude & Alice, named after the famous literary couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. They’ve been in business for 10 years and inside there is a sense of time standing still. Laidback board shorts mix with dark jeans as people sip their coffee and chat, surrounded by a huge selection of second-hand books. There’s a selection of wraps and muffins, blackboard specials for around $15, and thanks to new laws, are now fully licensed.
Cut to Surry Hills, where life seems a little more urgent. Ampersand, well established in Paddington for two decades, recently opened a new store in Sydney’s inner city suburb du jour. Reflecting its new customers, this version is edgier, faster and slimmer than its Paddington sibling. Downstairs the pendulum swings more toward cafe than books – the bar busy night and day with the crowd spilling out on to a grassy square. Upstairs there is a dark and sultry book-lined room with comfortable chairs and plenty of space for contemplation. Right across the way is the new, state-of-the-art Surry Hills public library should you need more books to amuse you.
The Berkelouw family trace their history with books back to 1812 in Holland and have been in business in Sydney for over 60 years. Six generations in the trade means they know something about selling books, evidenced by the fact that they have eight Sydney stores at last count, selling both second-hand and new volumes. Each has its own character, reflecting its neighbours’ tastes and habits. Leichardt is the original home of Sydney’s Italian community, and in-store old Italian faces mix seamlessly with tattooed, skinny-jeaned youth. If you are going to run a bookstore with a cafe in this neighbourhood, the coffee better be good (tick), you must serve generously filled panini, tramezzini, carozze (tick), the tea leaves should not be in bags (tick) and a glass of wine is almost obligatory (tick). Berkelouw's Paddington offering on Oxford Street is also particularly great to hang around in with a hot coffee, or, a glass of wine come evening.
Glebe is still as inner Sydney always was – defined by its working-class roots, tiny terraces, narrow streets and frangipani. Sappho somehow seems to be all these things. A graffiti-decorated courtyard is a pleasant sunny spot and in the dark interior the second-hand books add an air of scholarly calm. The coffee is by Toby’s and wine and tapas take over after dark. Want to make your own coffee? Sappho even runs a barista course.
Then maybe you can open your own bookstore-cafe.
Level 2, The Galleries Victoria, 500 George Street, Sydney
(02) 9262 7996
Gertrude & Alice
46 Hall Street, Bondi
(02) 9130 5155
413 Crown Street, Surry Hills
(02) 93128 1116