Give my library a coffee shop

September 28, 2022

Borders Books was one of my favorite stops as a kid. I could spend hours walking through the different isles while browsing for a novel. And I wasn't the only one. The stores were thriving with people. Some were there to quickly buy a paperback. Others took a more meandering pace, sampling a book over a coffee in the attached coffee shop. I was far too young for a latte but still remember the smell. Drip coffee mingled with the light musk of paperbacks on a crisp fall's day.

My Borders closed a long time ago. I think that store is a Crate and Barrel these days. Over the last fifteen years online ordering and eink tablets have taken a big chunk out of independent booksellers across the states. I don't take issue with that directly. Getting books online has many advantages - they're usually cheaper, more convenient, and let people self publish in a way that was inaccessible even ten years ago 1. But it seems clear that the target demographic of physical book stores is becoming reserved only for people with income to spare. Books will regularly price at $25 or $30 in some of the stores around San Francisco yet list for $10 on Amazon. When the MSRP needs to price in rent for some of the most expensive cities in the world, costs are going to balloon accordingly.

That's bad for reasons other than nostalgia.

  • Diminishing book stores mean a diminishing number of employees that can make their livelihoods reading and recommending books. It's easier to develop trust capital with people in the store than it is to scour reviews online, and easier to get help sifting through junk and disinformation.
  • Book stores were meeting spaces for the community, places that could attract a cross section of the community. There was little obligation to buy when you were there, so some people treated it as a great place to spend time, browse a bit, and get a snack when you're hungry.
  • Book stores spread a tactical love of reading. There's significant developmental psychological research pointing to infant need for physical manipulation and playing in the real world. Having a wide open book store fills the imagination in a way that an online search engine does not.

But where private enterprise can't succeed, it's sometimes up to governments to fill the void. And they have been filling the void for the better part of the last century. Naturally I'm talking about libraries. Libraries might be one of the greatest assets in modern America. They're free, have an extensive selection, provide technological support, dot cities and rural counties alike, and are often beautifully architected.

Their physical spaces are also increasingly underutilized.

Library attendance peaked in 2009 and has been decreasing by 2% each year, or 21.20% from 2009-2019 according to the IMLS raw data that tracks library utilization.2 2020 accelerated that trend dramatically but that might just be a pandemic anomaly. Meanwhile the share of digital lending is accelerating and will soon make up 50% of overall library volume lending. Libraries are getting more usage than ever but less of it is in the physical space.

The financials of libraries are also worth investigating. Staffing salaries make up the majority of cost - 66% administrative versus 10% on library collections. Local governments provide the bulk of this library funding at 85% of their total operating expenses. There's a total deficit of around $0.2 billion that's currently filled by grants, fines, donations, etc. With the exterior sources of income, libraries actually operate at a net surplus of around $1 billion a year.

Being so reliant on one funding source puts the future of libraries in jeopardy especially during financial trouble. You can easily imagine a future where local budgets get tight, more patrons than ever are using digital collections, and libraries follow the same trend as book stores. Exterior funding might be enough to close the gap today but it's not enough to make up for government funding entirely. They're forced to shutter as physical spaces - removing the cultural touchstones and resources alongside them. That 66% cost savings might prove too tempting for a legislative body to pass up. You still have the digital lending but you lose the meeting spaces, classes, and technical resourcing.

We should be encouraging utilization of our public services. Once public sentiment sours on an investment, it's difficult to justify the continuous investment - even if, ironically, that further investment is what's missing to make them better. These spaces need to be marketed and need to attract people to authorize the expenditures. Partnerships with local coffee roasters are a great way to do it.

Coffee shops are the de-facto standard for people who are remote workers. They're not great for conference calls but are ideal as a place for deep and independent work. Plus you get caffeinated. It's a win-win. But coffee shops are also facing the rising tide of rental prices, which are driving costs sky high. A regular drip coffee in San Francisco can get to $3 or $4 per cup. They're also - unfortunately - often very segmented by socioeconomic class. An artisanal coffee is a luxury expense and not one that's not on many budgets. It's another place in society where people don't mix with others. Libraries combat both of these negatives. They own the real estate so operating expenses are fixed. They also offer enough free services to the masses to facilitate community engagement at scale.

Libraries can easily turn into great places for more people to do their work. The physical floor plan and productivity is already there. The technical infrastructure is already wired. And unlike a coffee shop - libraries fully expect people to sit down and spend a day working there. But mental models can be sticky things. And a library is usually only thought of as a space where physical books are rented and returned, not one where people can actually get work done. An associated coffee stand is a great way to attract additional patrons. You can set one up with minimal equipment and either cross-train the existing employees or get an associated coffee shop to view it as a branch location.3

Since square footage costs are low, a coffee house could set up a presence for a fraction of the cost of normal rent. This would allow them to charge less for the coffee while commanding the same absolute margins. They also have natural foot traffic by virtue of library members and their typical central location in communities. In return, the library opens its reach to more individuals and glean more public support. The additional income stream can be used to add additional staff or fund their existing outreach programs for kids, young adults, and adults. All while making the library a fuller and more engaging place to spend an afternoon.

The image feels familiar. A sea of people - some reading and some working on their laptops, sitting at communal desks, with coffees in tow. It gives me nostalgia for that Borders day of old. But it's better than a Borders. It's more accessible to a wider section of the public and more stable with government funding. And it might be the boost of caffeine that libraries need to survive their next chapter. Many puns intended.

  1. They also certainly have downsides. eBooks are DRM protected, usually can't be loaned or donated, and can be remotely removed from your device. Online ordering concentrated power in the hands of Amazon, which can create monopolistic pricing power where one merchant dictates the de-facto price of books. But credit where it's due. 

  2. There's also a nice and slightly more accessible analysis conducted by wordsrated. I ended up doing a separate analysis before I found theirs but the numbers check out. 

  3. If you're worried about the noise, set up a truck outside but let people bring them while they're sitting down to get something done.