In 1995, a Barnes & Noble opened twenty miles from my small hometown of Mustang, Oklahoma. I still remember my first visit, ambling through aisles and ordering a cappuccino and a croissant in the Starbucks-like cafe. I felt so noble munching on my snacks and flipping through the pages of the book I’d purchased with tips from waitressing at a truck stop diner.
My passion for books led me to a career teaching high school English in Dallas. Now that I primarily write about food for a living, the bookstore cafe combines both of my loves.
As Americans spend less time reading for pleasure than ever (about seventeen minutes per day, according to the latest survey by the National Endowment for the Arts), some bookstore owners are adding cafes as a way to attract more traffic and engage their communities. “People who might not otherwise connect are more likely to do so when they crack a spine or break bread together,” says Tess Coody-Anders, the owner of Pecantown Books and Brews, in Seguin. “We are making both happen here.”
At these eight indie bookstore cafes, the menus are as carefully crafted as the titles on the shelves. There are “secret” sandwich menus and cookbook clubs and themed coffee drinks that encourage you to hang out a bit. The transactional space turns into a gathering place—and we could all use more of those.
Fable & Fire
Opened on the corner of downtown’s San Jacinto Plaza in 2022, Fable & Fire boasts a hearty and extensive menu. With lamb meatballs, gluten-free pancakes, Waldorf salads, freshly made pastas, and a sixteen-ounce ribeye, there’s something for every appetite. This is also the most upscale dining experience on the list, with table service and a reservation system. But you can also dine and drink on the go. The city allows people to enjoy alcoholic drinks—like the bistro’s bourbon-based Catcher and the Chai—on the square. Co-owner Vanessa Colman describes Rockwall as a special little town of literature lovers and book clubbers who favor the fantasy genre and still purchase hardcover books as gifts.
Fabled Bookshop & Cafe
With comfy reading nooks furnished with wing chairs and a leather couch, Fabled Bookshop, in downtown Waco, was designed to facilitate what co-owners Alison Frenzel and Kimberly Batson call the “literary linger.” Frenzel and Batson offer customers even more reasons to stick around with sandwiches and salads at their cafe, which has counter service and plenty of tables. Settle in with a literary-themed coffee drink, such as the Harry Potter–inspired Muggle Mocha, with butterscotch powder, and the spiced Hunny Pot Latte, an homage to Winnie the Pooh.
First Light Books
First Light Books’ petite, 1,700-square-foot space feels less like a bookstore and more like a chic friend’s library. Plentiful windows flood the store with light, and light wood accents and moody green wall paint add to the modern appeal. In the corner (next to the cookbook section, natch) is a marble-topped bar where customers can order coffee drinks, pastries from Texas French Bread, and sandwiches, like the tasty ham, salted butter, and gruyere. In the evenings, the menu takes on a European bistro feel, with beer, wine, and light snacks, such as a meat-and-cheese board and marinated olives. “What’s really important to us is to have it feel really simple and easily accessible,” says general manager and partner Breezy Mayo. Take your offerings to the expansive front patio, from which you can observe the historic Hyde Park neighborhood. If you’re hankering for something heavier, head next door to French restaurant Bureau de Poste.
The Full Cup Bookstore & Craft Coffee
According to the Full Cup Bookstore co-owner Bridget Talmage, people still buy books, but “you got to sell something else.” Her bookstore, thirty miles west of Fort Worth, sells primarily used books for less than $6.50 each, alongside paninis, wraps, cinnamon toast, and breakfast tacos at the counter in the corner of the shop. “Fancy” coffees are brewed with Grapevine-based Buon Giorno beans and sweetened with house-made syrups. Locals so enjoy the opportunity to get comfortable on a couch or the relaxed patio that the Full Cup recently expanded its hours to seven days a week.
Lark & Owl Booksellers
Situated thirty miles north of Austin, Lark & Owl draws most people for the books, but they stay a little longer after discovering the adjoining Alouette Bistro, says cofounder Jane Estes. Its menu consists of meat loaf sandwiches, roasted tofu wraps, and chef Erika Bongort’s specialty: cheddar cheese brownies. Estes says adding a bistro to a bookstore is the best way to serve customers, because “who doesn’t want to have a cup of coffee or cup of tea with their book?” People also come to indie bookstores like hers for community and connection, she says, referencing a study by Harvard Business School.
Pecantown Books and Brews
Set in a historic home in downtown Seguin, 35 miles northeast of San Antonio, Pecantown Books and Brews serves hatch chile spinach dip, shakshuka, charcuterie boards, and zero-proof cocktails. Food and beverage sales help kindle community events, like the Cook the Book club meetings, in which members prepare different recipes from a preselected cookbook and share a meal. There’s also the monthly “Wine and True Crime” meeting, which often involves a waiting list. The bookshop is a way to invite people back to the town square, owner Tess Coody-Anders says.
When Storiebook Cafe opened in Glen Rose, southwest of Fort Worth, in 2008, owner Storie Sharp only offered a sandwich and soup of the day. She says it took about a year to realize the sandwiches were selling better than the books, so she expanded the kitchen and hired servers. Locals loved the homemade cooking so much, Sharp added a secret menu of what she calls “bougie” sandwiches, named after the customers who created them. The Mark is a grilled turkey, provolone, and avocado sandwich with Thousand Island dressing on a pretzel roll, and you can get it alongside a mason jar of iced peach tea.
The Wild Detectives
The Wild Detectives is a bookstore and coffee shop by day and a lively gathering place for discussions, concerts, and book signings by night. Co-owner Javier García del Moral says the bookstore was never meant to be a restaurant, but that adding food and drinks has encouraged people to interact. He does offer snacks in the way of cookies and empanadas prepared at Sketches of Spain, a restaurant he co-owns down the street. The empanadas are filled with beef Bolognese, Mexican chorizo, or tomato-and-zucchini ratatouille. The seasonal cocktails are also a highlight: this summer’s low-ABV Rome with a View featured Campari, dry vermouth, soda, and lime. The bookstore is known for its Latin books and programming, such as the Hay Festival Forum.
Additional reporting by Kimya Kavehkar.