After an espresso or two has kicked jet lag into the long grass, I find no better place to plot a course in a city than at an independent bookstore cafe. Many operate more as cultural and community centers than as businesses, with late hours and a medium-sized town's worth of on-site readings, tastings and concerts out of any weather that may be annoying you. Check out their posters and bulletin boards for options farther afield. And ask the staff: Bookstore cafes usually have a nicotine-tinged finger or two on a city's pulse.
Local patrons, too, tend to be welcoming and helpful even in the world's most frenzied metropolises. A bookstore cafe, after all, is the last place you'd go in a hurry.
Although bookstore cafes unlock the cultural life of the surrounding area, some are so special that they are destinations in their own right. In this sense, the world's finest bookstore cafe may well be the Montague Bookmill, housed in a marvelous 19th century structure above the Sawmill River in Montague, Mass.
The Bookmill is owned by screenwriter Susan Shilliday ("thirtysomething," "A Wrinkle in Time," "Legends of the Fall"), who relocated to western Massachusetts after three decades in Los Angeles. Once a regular at Santa Monica's 18th Street Coffee House and the now-shuttered Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, Shilliday's daughter introduced her to the "shared secret" of the Bookmill (slogan: "Books you don't need in a place you can't find"). She found it to be the ideal place to write, read, socialize and caffeinate, and long dreamed that one day she'd see a "For Sale" sign outside. In 2007, she did.
The Bookmill offers used books as well as the usual poetry readings, happy staff and hummus plates. And the area's unexpectedly vibrant music scene fills it with concerts and its windows with posters. Yet the life of the Bookmill — as much as the coffee, the books and the music — is the Sawmill River, visible at every turn. In spring it surges with snowmelt, and in summer the sight and sound of it cool the hottest afternoons. By October, the famous New England foliage blows over the mill and into the rushing waters.
But the Bookmill is most magical in the heart of winter. If snowflakes aren't tumbling into the half-frozen rapids, pale sunlight filters through the bare trees and old windows onto the mill's charactered wood surfaces. The mill has many corners — grab a hot chocolate and find one for yourself. Read, chat or simply listen to the voices in the cafe, the river running under the ice outside and the pages turning all around you.
The Trident Booksellers & Cafe on Newbury Street in Boston — the Puritans' snow-dusted answer to Rodeo Drive — isn't the most obvious venue for an establishment aiming to exemplify a "Buddhist notion of right livelihood." But owner Bernard Flynn wanted to offer customers "the opportunity to connect to others or to be alone … in a space that's open and warmhearted."
His longstanding success, as chain bookstores and cafes rise and fall around him, owes much to the eclectic mix of books that Flynn has been handcrafting for 34 years. His broad-mindedness carries over to the cafe menu, which includes the Truck Stop Special (one pancake, home fries, sausage, two eggs and toast) and Tibetan vegetarian dumplings, and an award-winning newsstand that encompasses reading materials as diverse as National Review and Reiki News.
Trident Booksellers & Cafe, 338 Newbury St., Boston; (617) 267-8688, http://www.tridentbookscafe.com
Establishments along Trident's lines are a natural fit for Boston, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. But in rural America too, travelers are discovering bookstore cafes and their unexpectedly vibrant cultural resources. Explorers on the back roads of eastern Arizona, for example, may find themselves in the town of Payson, about 80 miles northeast of Phoenix. A wrong turn or two after the Wal-Mart will bring them to East West Exchange, a charming and friendly establishment that's an ideal place to pause on a road trip.
The country element — both on the CD player and on live nights (look no further for Willie Nelson tributes) — is no surprise. But add yoga classes (good for car-contorted roadtrippers), poetry readings and Native American flute concerts, and East West Exchange has the contented feel of a place that brings people together.
Like most independent bookstore cafe proprietors, East West owners Chip and Lisa Semrau say they're not "doing this to get rich. The biggest thing we're providing is community." Break your journey with an Italian soda, a chat with locals and ideas for exploring nearby Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and the Mogollon Rim.
East West Exchange, 100 N. Tonto St., Suite 102, Payson, Ariz.; (928) 468-2435, http://www.ew-exchange.com
Among European cities, London's bookstore cafes have the most distinguished pedigrees. The city's legendary 18th century "penny universities" used to charge for access to both coffee and literature. Though free refills haven't been seen in Britain since, London's bookstore-cafe scene is once again thriving.
Start at the London Review Bookshop, a scone's throw from the British Museum. Just a few years old, the bookshop and its adjacent cake shop are a worthy and much-loved play on the city's remarkable coffeehouse past. Enjoy the sticky cakes, the plentiful copies of the London Review of Books and the chance to share the large central table with Londoners or fellow travelers.
Or try Foyles, on Charing Cross Road, Britain's avenue of bookstores. Foyles stands out as one of Britain's largest and best-loved bookshops. But it is also one of the easiest and least expensive places for visitors to plug themselves into the cultural life of London. Its extraordinary selection of readings, debates and exhibits is diverse and mostly free (no small matter in one of the world's priciest cities). Its author events involve, as Foyles modestly claims, "practically every great writer of the age." Come too for the music, including classical concerts and a regular jazz series, and for the pleasingly run-down cafe. In a country not particularly known for its sandwiches or customer service, Foyles excels at both.
London Review Bookshop & Cakeshop, 14 Bury Place, London; 011-44-020-7269-9030, http://www.lrbshop.co.uk.
Foyles, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, London; 011-44-020-7437-5660, http://www.foyles.co.uk.
Perhaps it's the British heritage at work, but among Asian cities Hong Kong offers a unique selection of bookstore cafes. The sleek Kubrick Café, in the Yau Ma Tei area of Kowloon, is indulgently artsy, while cultural revolutions of another sort are addressed at People's Recreation Community in the Causeway Bay district on Hong Kong Island. The specialty here is cake and books banned in mainland China.
For one more cultural upheaval, try Bookworm, in the village of Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island. A short ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, the excursion is a trip in several senses, as central Hong Kong's "Blade Runner"-meets-Wall Street vibe is replaced by the ideal stage set for a Cantonese "Tales of the City." Amble up the pier (past the "All you need is love" graffiti), and down the main street. Bookworm is on your right.
Inside this tiny cafe, lime-green tables and "Pride Destroys Everything" signs are set off against a peculiar offering of used books, including a vast selection of Spanish-language guides to Greek isles. The menu is equally esoteric: Try shepherdess pie, "Buddhist-friendly" pizzas and "Hello organic cakes!!" Are they offering such cakes, or greeting them? Who knows. But count on Bookworm for erratic hours, friendly staff and music nights.
Kubrick Café, Prosperous Garden, 3 Public Square St., Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong; 011-852-2384-8929; http://www.kubrick.com.hk.
People's Recreation Community, 1/F, 18 Russell St., Causeway Bay, Hong Kong; 011-852-2836 0016, http://www.people-bookstore.com.
Bookworm, 79 Yung Shue Wan Main St., Lamma Island; 011-852-2982-4838, http://www.bookwormcafe.com.hk
Like Hong Kong, Mexico City has a selection of memorable bookstore cafes, all branches of El Péndulo, a local chain of elegant "cafebrerías" (cafe plus librería) scattered across this sprawling megalopolis. Each has a full menu of Middle East-accented Mexican food and reasonable English-language sections.
The Zona Rosa branch is an oasis of class in the city's increasingly run-down gay district, or you can walk through nearby Condesa to its inaugural branch. Browse your way to the second-floor terrace, where no one minds if you linger for hours under a canopy of fine-leafed trees. But don't miss the concerts, readings and courses that make El Péndulo Mexico City's most accessible cultural resource for travelers.
El Péndulo, five branches, including 115 Avenida Nuevo León, Colonia Condesa, Mexico City; 011-52-55-5286-9493, http://www.pendulo.com