Drinking in the words

From Maastricht to Mexico, the bookshop cafe is a heady brew, writes Brian Turner.

BOOKSELLER Bernard and his consiglieri, Manny, are brainstorming schemes to attract customers into Black Books: ''We can't let them find reasons to leave - we can feed them! Lunch and dinner! … a gym … no, that's a bit much.''

Perhaps Manny should have suggested an attached Black Books Cafe to keep the punters in?

Today's beleaguered bookshops often have adjoined cafes: a forum for customers to meet, sip, read or chat in the beckoning and unhurried alchemy that coffee, books and armchairs create. Sydney's eclectic Sappho Books (51Glebe Point Road) has an attached tapas and wine bar; Berkelouw's bookshops in Paddington and Leichhardt also have vibrant cafes. Mexico City's El Pendulo bookshop chain has taken its bookshop cafes a step further - devising the name''cafebreria'' (cafe+libreria). Each bookshop's cafebreria has its own unique literary theme.

Here, in no particular order, are six personal favourite bookshop cafes - the democratic, literary and eccentric.

Democratic

Barter Books is a grand second-hand bookshop housed in the former Victorian-era railway station at Alnwick, Britain, an hour's drive north of Newcastle upon Tyne. Behind the cash desk - in the former parcels room - hangs an iconic WWII framed poster, ''Keep calm and carry on'', discovered in a box of books bought at auction. This aptly describes the no-fuss atmosphere of the self-serve tea and coffee parlour (20 pence in the honesty box please) in the former station waiting room, replete with free newspapers, plush armchairs and sofa.

Savour its English quaintness and select a book from the Bizarre Books section (alongside the model railway) - say Coins of the British Empire, Tea Bag Folding or Secrets of Lock Picking, or even the 2010 winner of the British Bad Sex in Fiction Prize, Rowan Somerville's The Shape of Her.

Prepare a cup of tea for yourself, settle down into a sofa beneath the painted ceiling mural of 33 life-size writers, who beam down upon you approvingly.

Time your visit for an author talk held in the ladies' waiting room (blazing fireplace during winter) and stay overnight at a B&B to spend time trawling the bookshelves of one of Britain's largest, yet one of its most curious, bookshops.

Bedside reading Anthony Powell's Books Do Furnish a Room.

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Judgment day cafe

Selexyz Dominicanen, an 800-year-old church-turned-bookshop in the Netherlands city of Maastricht, was constructed in 1294 and, according to bookshop manager Ton Harmes, derelict since 1796 when the French revolutionary army dispersed the clergy to stable their horses.

Another revolutionary conversion took place in 2002 when the Amsterdam-based bookshop chain Selexyz - with a tradition of bookshops in historical buildings - commissioned architects Merkx+Girod to transform the church into a bibliophile's paradise.

Three gallery levels with 25,000 titles now soar heavenward. Browsers can view newly uncovered mediaeval frescoes on the gothic ceiling and, at the crucifix-shaped cafe tables on the former altar, today's biblio-idolaters now sip, chat, laugh, flirt and read.

Bedside reading Build-On: Converted Architecture and Transformed Buildings by Lukas Feireiss , includes the conversion of Selexyz Dominicanen.

Foyled

London is unrenowned for good value, good service or even good breakfasts but Foyles bookshop's Ray's Jazz Cafe has all three, with an ambience and prices for young backpackers on a budget.

Foyles, a landmark at Charing Cross Road since 1906, was once renowned for its ''literary luncheons'' and until the 1980s even Bernard Black would have found it a bit, well, eccentric: books shelved by publisher instead of author and a dotty manageress with an aversion to phones, modern cash registers and people, who ''fired'' customers as regularly as she did staff.

Today, Ray's Jazz Cafe has impromptu concerts, readings and feisty interactive author talks.

Bedside reading Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road.

Splendidly staged

Buenos Aires citizens (Portenos) start the day in their local marble-tabled cafe with a large cafe con leche and a medialuna (croissant) - then chain-drink heavily sugared short blacks until late afternoon.

Argentina's capital is a literate, highly caffeinated city with copious bookshop cafes - the most spectacular of which is El Ateneo, in the transformed 1919 vintage Grand Splendid Theatre at 1860AvSantaFe. Former stalls, balconies and two upper galleries are now crammed with Spanish, French and English titles and the cafe Imprenta is centre stage, where readers and waiters now tread the boards.

As in all Buenos Aires cafes, coffee comes with biscuits and drinks with nuts or salted crisps. You should give a tostada (dainty thin ham-and-cheese toasted sandwich) a try, or a spicy empanada.

Bedside reading Gabriela Kogan's guide The Authentic Bars, Cafes and Restaurants of Buenos Aires, to plan your city strolls with coffee stops at bookshop cafes and BA's grandly ornate Belle Epoque cafes.

Liquored up

Mexico City's El Pendulo bookshop chain's newest inner-city branch at 126 Ave Hamburgo in Zona Rosa, has a vast range of English titles and a new cafebreria, Bukowski's Piano Bar. It's named after ''Skid Row'' poet and novelist Charles Bukowski and also dedicated to ''All writers inspired by alcohol''.

Bukowski's 45 books are translated into many languages with addicted readers worldwide. Two, including Barfly, have been made into films. The ''Piano Bar'' tag is from Bukowski's long-winded 1979 book, Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit.

The Piano Bar's walls are decorated with author portraits and quotes including Bukowski's famous, ''I don't like jails, they got the wrong kind of bars there''.

The Mexican snacks are excellent and the bookish cocktail list includes the Kafka and the Barfly.

Bedside reading Bukowski's Tales of Ordinary Madness - and remember, watch the film version on DVD when you get back home.

Monastic tradition

The cathedral-like Livraria Lello, at 144 Rua das Carmelitas in the Portuguese city of Porto, is so atmospheric tourists reverently lower their voices. Manager Antero Braga explains: ''The bookshop was opened in 1906 and designed to echo the monastic library tradition which preserved Portuguese culture during the Moorish invasion.''

Carved trefoils adorn bookshelves, gargoyles peer down from corbels and a curvaceous red staircase - more Hogwarts than gothic - whirls upwards to a gallery level where the shrine of all bookshop cafe extremists, Cafe Lello, is under a massive stained glass window. Sitting with book, coffee, a glass of Portuguese port and views across cobbled Rua Carmelitas, I decide there's nowhere I'd rather be.

Bedside reading Portugal's national epic, The Lusiads by Camoes.

Brian Turner is the former manager of the Art Gallery of NSW Bookshop and author of three books.

 

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