Since its inception in 2013, BookBar has been a major player in the local literary scene, and that’s by design. Owner Nicole Sullivan wanted to make her mark doing something she believed in, bringing together her love of lit and liquor under one welcoming roof.
But Sullivan isn’t one to rest on her laurels. She’s started other related ventures: BookBed, BookGive, partnerships with local agencies like Colorado Humanities, and the At the Inkwell reading series. She’s supported local authors, as well — and now she’s doing it in a new way, with BookBar Press and its debut publication, Bite Size: An Anthology of Micro Theatre, produced in association with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
The book includes five winners of a competition put on by the Denver Center's Off-Center and five others that were judges’ favorites. To celebrate, BookBar Press is having an online launch event on Saturday, December 19, at 7 p.m.; more information and the Zoom registration link are available at the BookBar website.
We caught up with Sullivan to talk about the book, the new small press, and where BookBar goes post-pandemic.
Westword: BookBar Press's first book hit the shelves on December 15. How did the project come about?
Nicole Sullivan: This was all Meridith Grundei’s idea. In her work with Denver Center for the Performing Arts' [Off-Center] program and her travels through Mexico, she began thinking more about bringing theater to the people rather than bringing people to the theater. The best way to accomplish that is to make it more accessible both economically and geographically. She was familiar with BookBar and thought micro plays with micro audiences in micro spaces could work really well. We agreed.
Can you define micro theater, for the uninitiated?
Meridith could probably answer this better than I, but micro theater is about accessibility and community, bringing smaller theater productions to communities for an experience in smaller spaces. In many other cultures, theatrical performances are more commonly experienced in town squares and even peoples’ homes.
The Colorado playwrights included in Bite Size are a diverse bunch of folks. Can you talk about the pieces the book brings together, and what that might say about the Colorado literary landscape itself?
Diversity was one of the requirements for playwrights applying to be a part of this project. I’m a big believer that books aren’t just a form of entertainment, but are an essential tool for opening minds and helping us to understand experiences different than our own. These plays touch on important and diverse topics such as social justice, prisoner rights, religious revelations and transgender experiences, which will hopefully spark discussions about things we haven’t, as a society, always talked about but are recognizing more and more that we need to.
Just as an example, in “Something to Read at the End of the World,” the character Young Woman is a transgender woman, and there is a note by playwright Maureen Biermann stating, “Because of the urgency and importance of recognizing and validating the existence of transgender people in our society, the granting of permission to perform this play is dependent upon the casting of a transgender actor in the role of Young Woman.”
Empathy, connection, reflection, humor — I feel like these are all things we really need right now after the way this past year has gone. As a book publisher, I think we feel a responsibility to amplify voices that have often been ignored, to help make visible those who have, in the past, been marginalized in our society. We’re going to have to constantly evaluate ourselves to ensure we’re on track, but I feel like, with Bite Size, we’re off to a good start.
Can you talk a little about the relationship of theater to literature? They're not often seen as connected as they really are.
I think that’s a great point. Many people experience theater and literature in very different ways, even though they come from the same source. It all starts with an idea, a thought, a story. They each manifest differently from there. That is one of the things I loved so much about this project, is that it all came full circle. It started with an idea, which led to more ideas that were put to paper, which led to performance art, which led right back to the page through this book. Many of the arts overlap in so many ways, and I love to see that overlap cultivated and the lines grayed. Maybe we tricked a few readers into loving theater or a few theater buffs into loving literature.
How did you decide that this was the right book for BookBar Press to launch first?
I had begun exploring the idea of publishing our own content around the same time that we were hosting these plays in the store. It seemed like the perfect project to launch a small press, since it represents everything that we want our press to be: inclusive, community-centered literature that promotes diverse local authors. It was really two ideas coming together at once. I don’t think I decided that this book was the right one — it was the one. And I always jump at any chance to collaborate with fun, creative people.
So what are your hopes for the press as it develops over the coming years? What literary areas are you hoping to tap into? What's coming next?
We have a few other books in the works that will release in 2021. We’ll likely stick to publishing just a handful of books per year that have a focus on social justice and highlight local, marginalized voices. Additionally, we’ll be rolling out author service packages that will help guide local authors through the publishing process with as much or as little help as they may need. Part of our services will include a database of trusted local literary professionals. Our consultation will emphasize the importance of authors working with their local, indie bookstores, and we will guide authors in how best to do that.
Longer-term and bigger-picture, we would love to create a national network with other bookstores publishing their own content in order to support one another and give each of our local projects a national audience. I feel strongly that these grassroots approaches to publishing will become more important over the next few years as we witness more and more large publishing companies merge and become huge — much in the same way that indie bookstores have become more important the larger Amazon becomes.
Speaking of the literary scene, how's it faring now that we're nine months into the pandemic? How is BookBar hanging in?
Oof. We’re good. Real good. We are currently working nonstop, the whole staff, in filling online orders. We’re buried, and that’s amazing. We’re blown away by the fact that the community has turned out so strongly for a small business during a pandemic. I hope all small businesses are having this same experience.
We’ve had to reinvent our processes about ten times since March, so we’re all way past exhaustion. But we’re exhilarated at the same time. Back in March, when everything first shut down, like many whose small businesses were already just getting by day to day, I thought the worst would happen. I wasn’t sure how we could possibly survive a sustained downturn in business. Turns out our community wasn’t about to let that happen. We’re beyond grateful for everyone who cares about spaces like BookBar.
Good news. How about BookBar’s affiliate projects?
Our nonprofit BookGive officially launched in March. We couldn’t have possibly known what impact it would have on our community during such an awful time. People are craving books more than ever, as many have more downtime and are more introspective. Yet libraries have restricted access and readers have more economic woes. Owning books is a luxury, and it shouldn’t be. BookGive has been able to donate over 30,000 books to more than seventy organizations throughout Denver since March. We partnered with Little Free Library and received a grant from the Denver Foundation and Porch Light Real Estate to install 4 LFLs in underserved neighborhoods. And we just this week secured a grant from the Les Paul Foundation!
BookBed has been operating as a Writers in Residence for week-long stays so that authors can focus on their projects. This is a service that is especially needed while we’re all stuck at home. Sometimes being stuck in a different home makes all the difference. In exchange for the stay, writers volunteer for a three-hour shift at the BookGive Service Station. We are booked up through 2021 for this program, so, yeah, that’s been successful, too.
It's important that we never forget the "bar" part of BookBar. So what adult holiday beverages do you have to offer up this year?
Mulled wine is always a favorite, and we have the best hot cocoa in Denver. We are limited to selling to-go bar and cafe items only. Customers love picking up a steamy cup of warm spiced wine or cocoa with their book purchases at our curbside pick-up window. We’re happily still serving bar items, but in all honesty, we’re taking this time to focus on book sales, since all of the other bars and restaurants on the street are suffering. In the meantime, we are working on expanding our liquor license in preparation for our event space, finally on target to break ground in March. We’re applying for a cabaret license in order to serve up literary themed cocktails and live music in the new space. It's looking like the opening might just coincide with life getting back to "normal," in which case we’ll be primed to host even more literary community events than before, but now with live music and booze! We’ll also have the ability to host more book club meetings, private parties, and have some overflow space for busy nights.
You already sound pretty busy.
We’re looking ahead. For BookBar, it’s all a great opportunity to expand our literary reach beyond the book industry and connect with readers beyond our community.
BookBar is the only place in town to get a copy of Bite Size, launching online Saturday, December 19, at 7 p.m.
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