BookBar owner Nicole Sullivan has announced big changes afoot at her bookstore and wine bar, which in seven years has already established itself as a Denver literary institution. The shop currently hosts the Colorado Book Award readings, the At the Inkwell monthly gatherings, book clubs, book launches and author appearances of all sorts. The community gathering place has been celebrated by outlets such as Forbes, Fodor’s, Huffington Post and Real Simple, and it celebrates the written word as it was meant to be: with beverages.
Now, longtime bar manager Catherine Olah is leaving to start her own bar in South Fork, and Jessica Caouette, a former co-owner of the Denver Bicycle Cafe and owner of Tandem Bar, will take her place. And BookBar will add to its beverage list, which will no longer be focused on wine. According to Sullivan, the shop will "pursue a full liquor and cabaret license in order to offer literary-themed cocktails and live music accompaniment to literary events.”
And there are more changes coming, including a greater integration of the BookGive nonprofit literary charity; new event programming in an expanded event space with a book-art gallery; an in-house indie press; and a writer-in-residence program.
Sullivan says these changes are “all about community building,” inspired by sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place, which “described the necessity of third places in a community where people can come together to meet, exchange ideas, form partnerships.” Sullivan quickly adds that this has become more challenging with social distancing becoming the new normal: “We’ll have to get creative about how we still fill the need of that third place with fewer people at any given time.”
But gatherings have been at the root of BookBar since it took over the space previously occupied by the Bookery Nook, which closed in 2012.
“I saw a need,” Sullivan recalls. “I used to love to browse the shelves there, and I wasn’t ready to give up on this idea of a local bookstore for the community. As a mother with two young children, I saw a need for a place where it was not only acceptable, but encouraged to bring your book to a bar for a glass of wine.”
Sullivan clearly wasn’t alone in her thinking. But when BookBar came into being in 2012, Denver already had a favorite local bookstore with several locations around town: Tattered Cover. Still, BookBar quickly established itself as a major player in the local literary scene, carving out its own space in a constructive and respectful way.
“'Respect' is the key word,” Sullivan says. “I’ve always loved Tattered Cover. One of the first things I did when I opened BookBar was to have breakfast with [owner] Joyce Meskis and just chat face to face with her, expressing my admiration.”
“As long as you’re doing your own thing in your own community,” Sullivan says, “there’s room for more bookselling in Denver.”
The Tennyson corridor in Denver’s Highland neighborhood turned out to be a good bet for Sullivan and BookBar, though the growth of the area has at times been both a blessing and a curse. “The good, the bad and the ugly,” Sullivan says. “Many of the aspects of Tennyson Street that drew me to it had to do with its old-school, slightly gritty charm: the bungalows, the barber shop, the hardware store, the galleries. Unfortunately, that same charm drew unscrupulous developers and…runaway development with very little oversight.”
But at the same time, Sullivan says she’s encouraged by a seeming resurgence in the area.
“The Yates Theater will be a good complement to the Oriental," she says. "I’m excited about the Enigma Bazaar. I’m thrilled that many of the art galleries have been able to hang on. We have some of the best bars, restaurants and boutiques in Denver. Most of this area still consists of locally owned businesses, and I sure hope that continues to be the case.”
Sullivan and BookBar have done their part to keep the independent retail spirit of the Northside alive, most recently purchasing the old Regis 66 filling station at 49th and Lowell and turning it into the BookGive Service Station. Sullivan started the literary charity a decade ago.
“I was bored and needed a non-kid-related project, so a couple of friends and I hosted a community book exchange," she remembers. "It was so successful that we kept hosting them each year and would donate all the leftover books to nonprofit organizations and school libraries.”
When Sullivan opened BookBar, she incorporated the charity efforts into the business, and the unofficial program grew until it finally ran out of space. “So I founded BookGive [officially], purchased Regis 66 as our headquarters, hired an executive director, and obtained our 501(c)(3) status. It made sense even before COVID-19 to integrate our nonprofit with BookBar. Now it makes even more sense. Starting June 1, 10 percent of all book sales will be donated to BookGive, and our new membership-program dues will go to BookGive as well."
The press has championed BookBar from the beginning, and the shop has been honored by both Westword and 5280 magazine. But it’s the writers who are the “most fun,” according to Sullivan, especially “the ones who just slid right into our world. We’ve had authors who ended up at the bars with staff late into the night, forging ongoing friendships after their events.”
Sullivan has many fond memories of spending time with authors, from sharing meals at El Chingon and Brazen to hiking at Red Rocks. “Peter Heller and I went out for World Book Night several years ago with a friend of mine who owned a pedicab. We delivered The Dog Stars [Heller’s award-winning debut novel] to the homeless along the 16th Street Mall. Peter signed each and every book.”
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Authors are also at the heart of the changes coming to BookBed, the renovated apartment above BookBar that has served as part lodging for visiting writers, part Airbnb. “I’d already taken the apartment off the Airbnb market,” says Sullivan, “because the City of Denver was just too stringent with their regulations — for our purposes, anyway. So I was already planning to transition to a writers-in-residence program for that space.”
Sullivan plans for BookBar to work with local partners to develop that program, which will dovetail nicely with the shop's new in-house publishing program, BookBar Press, an imprint that will focus on “literary and underserved voices whose stories reflect the shared experience of our community.”
All of these changes are being made to ensure BookBar’s next anniversary and many after that.
Given another seven years, Sullivan envisions that “all of the programs we’re putting into place today will come together to solidify our place in Denver as a full-service literary center, where stories are being written in BookBed, published by BookBar Press and launched in our Event Gallery. All while giving back to the community through BookGive.” She hopes that BookBar can “continue to be that third place" — and, as always, raise a toast to the literary.