Food News

A New Chapter (and Bar Manager) for BookBar

click to enlarge Bar manager Jonah Kaplan is new to BookBar, but not new to the book business. - MOIRA BROWNWOLFE
Bar manager Jonah Kaplan is new to BookBar, but not new to the book business.
Moira Brownwolfe
It's always good to see new faces among old friends. And that's exactly what the faithful, well-read, wine-loving patrons of Denver's BookBar will find when they return to the spot at 4280 Tennyson Street, which moved many of its events online during the pandemic.

Since 2013, when Nicole Sullivan founded BookBar, the perfect pairing of books and imbibing has charmed its way into the literary hearts and wallets of the Mile High City. Readings, book clubs, charity work, visiting writers and even a press of its own have made for a busy eight years for the shop, slowed only by the pandemic.

Now BookBar is ready to jump back in — and also to jump-start a whole new era.

Much of the action revolves around the store's new bar manager, Jonah Kaplan. He grew up in the South Florida literary scene; his father not only started the small chain of indie bookstores called Books & Books, but also founded the Miami Book Fair more than three decades ago, and more recently served as the president of the American Booksellers Association.

“My background was working with my dad’s stores,” Kaplan explains. “Then coronavirus hit, and it decimated our business for a little while. It was a good time for me to move away from the place where I grew up and experience something new.”

Not just a new location, but a new line of work: Kaplan was working as a roofer when his father introduced him to BookBar's Sullivan, whose business model impressed him. “There were similarities with what I knew from my dad’s stores and what Nicole wanted to do," Kaplan says. "Nicole has an amazing vision for BookBar. It felt right.”

A big part of what felt right to Kaplan — and the thing that keeps BookBar’s faithful coming back in the door — is the sense of literary community. It was at the core of the initial concept for the store, to gather like-minded lovers of lit and encourage conversation and camaraderie over wine and small bites.

But in March 2020, the community moved online, and for the next eighteen months, BookBar largely limited itself to virtual events, takeout orders and book delivery. Recently it added VIP Mondays, so that regulars could gather in the store in smaller groups.

“We actually just went back to our pre-COVID hours within this last month,” Kaplan says. “In that time, we’ve gone back to customers sitting and drinking and eating in the store as well.” And the authors are coming inside, too.
click to enlarge BookBar is a cozy spot on Tennyson Street. - BOOKBAR
BookBar is a cozy spot on Tennyson Street.
“We just had one of our first live events,” Kaplan notes. “Denver-born author Stephen Trimble was here to launch his new book, The Mike File. We had 32 people in attendance, which was fantastic. And we’re opening up for book clubs again in October, which is exciting."

But that's not all: BookBar is building a two-story event and gallery space behind the original spot. "We’ve finished the plans, and we’re looking forward to getting that started so we can host even larger events in the future," Kaplan says, pointing out that BookBar just hosted its first wedding — "and we have another already booked. It’s just one of the events we want to encourage. Gallery shows, larger author readings, all that. We’re super-excited for the potential of that new space, and all that we’ll be able to do with it for our local community.”

That emphasis on local applies not just to the community and books, but also to the bar. From the beer to the biscuits, the pastries to the Pinot Noir, everything is sourced as close to home as possible. “We love featuring local distributors,” Kaplan says. “It’s so important. Our cheeses and meats we source from a local cheese shop called the Truffle, an amazing woman-owned cheese shop. We only serve Colorado beers — breweries like Comrade, Resolute and Telluride.”

The wine has local ties, too. “We have a whole new wine menu,” Kaplan adds. “All of our wines are now bio-dynamic, sustainable or organic. They’re all either bottled in Colorado or have some connection to the state or the store. We’re working to make everything we touch Colorado-based and local-business based, with companies that are progressive. ... We choose to work with these companies because they align with our mission and our culture."

Beer and wine will no longer be BookBar's only alcoholic options.

“We acquired our full liquor license, and we’re finishing up inspections,” Kaplan says. “So now we’re developing a cool menu of literary cocktails that we’ll be able to offer. This has been the vision from the beginning — the full bar available to customers. But we’re not going to be doing shots or rum and Cokes. We’re going to be doing some curated and cool stuff, drink-wise.”

Since you can order a charcuterie plate called the Sylvia Platther, why not a Tequila Mockingbird to go with it?

The spirit of friendly fun is matched by the service. “We’re one of the only bookstores in the country that really integrates the whole staff," Kaplan says. "We want everyone working here to be baristas, bartenders, and booksellers all in one. We cross-train everyone so that they can make you a coffee, pour you a beer, suggest a wine and recommend a good book, too. We curate everything in the store to mirror our staff and our customers and our collective diversity and inclusiveness.”

Even as the Tennyson corridor changes, BookBar continues to fit in. “Coming from Miami, which is a larger city and known for its foot traffic and hospitality culture, I’m happily surprised by how many people are constantly walking up and down this block,” says Kaplan.

And by how many are coming into BookBar. Even at times when he expects business to be light, the store is packed. Maybe people just need to refill their bookshelves after eighteen months of reading. Or maybe they're recognizing the need to gather in spaces where they feel welcome, to enjoy some food and wine and company.

“We want people to be able to hang out here,” concludes Kaplan. “To have a quiet drink, to read a book, to provide that space. It’s all about community.”

Bookbar is located at 4280 Tennyson Street. For information on upcoming events, call 303-284-0194 or visit the Bookbar website.