Berkeley’s BookBar serves up literature, wine and that community vibe
Dreams of “happier hour” and the need to support local businesses prompted Sarah Frazer to nominate the indie bookstore as our third business in the series.
When Sarah Frazer and her husband decided to move back to Colorado, they started the move by weighing the pros of each neighborhood in Denver.
Frazer, a Centennial native, said they made a map with all 78 neighborhoods and pinned things in different areas that appealed to them.
One crucial pin was BookBar, located in Berkeley on the corner of Tennyson Street and West 43rd Avenue.
It’s an indie bookstore/wine bar/coffee shop that opened in 2013 and is owned by Berkeley resident Nicole Sullivan.
Frazer didn’t know Sullivan nor had she ever been to the shop but her friends were adamant that she would enjoy the space.
“When I first heard about [BookBar], I was so enamored,” Frazer said. “A friend of mine told me about the bar and I thought it was really cool to mix a bookstore with a wine bar, something that appeals to two of my interests: I love to read and I love to drink wine.”
So, Frazer moved to Berkeley about 18 months ago, ready to explore the area and especially BookBar’s “happier hour storytime,” a weekly event where kids get a story time and adults get half off select wine.
But Frazer never got her happier hour.
Come March, the pandemic forced Denver to shut down and since then businesses have been in a loop of closing and reopening, and pandemic numbers have decreased and increased.
Frazer didn’t want any of the businesses on Tennyson to close, let alone BookBar.
“When we got here, everything was shutting down,” Frazer said. “And I just kept thinking, please don’t close. I need my happier hour.”
BookBar didn’t close, and Frazer couldn’t be happier.
We asked Denverites to nominate businesses they cherish that made it through the mandatory closures and other challenges of the pandemic. Frazer gave BookBar a shoutout in our survey.
Bookstores, even pre-pandemic, have always had a tough time thriving. Big chains and local stores have shuttered in recent years, falling victim to lower prices offered by Amazon, a fact Frazer is very much aware of.
“I buy a lot of things from Amazon,” Frazer said. “But I also hate Amazon. And I realize that I don’t want to be that type of consumer… so I try to avoid Amazon whenever I can and buying books locally is a really great way to do that.”
Mainly because Amazon doesn’t offer the same experience as a brick and mortar bookstore, Frazer added.
“You don’t get staff support at Amazon,” Frazer said. “No one gives you advice and you don’t get to browse and pick up books you wouldn’t normally choose.”
Sullivan said that’s what sets her apart from retailers such as Amazon, that bookstore experience of getting recommendations and casually strolling through the aisles.
“With Amazon, they can offer cheaper products,” Sullivan said. “But they’ll never be able to offer a space like this… a community space.”
Sullivan said one of the main reasons she opened BookBar was to continue to provide a local bookstore for the Berkeley neighborhood, where she’s lived for the past 17 years.
“There was actually a different bookstore in this location that was here for about three years,” Sullivan said. “When they started struggling, I talked to the owners and asked if there was any way we could save this community bookstore.”
A partnership between the pair never panned out and the bookstore closed in 2012. Sullivan opened BookBar the following year.
“I think this kind of concept, a small footprint community bookstore, could and should exist in every community,” Sullivan said. “When you say ‘community’ what does that mean? For me it means giving where you live, working where you live… because you know the people, you know the vibe and you’re a part of the environment.”
Frazer noticed BookBar’s community vibe even before she became a patron. When Frazer looked up the shop, she was drawn to their community events and outreach.
BookBar hosts book clubs and local author events. Sullivan also runs a nonprofit, Book Give, which donates books to other nonprofit organizations and schools.
“I like that they are pretty integrated into the community,” Frazer said. “I think it’s a special kind of business and that’s part of the reason we’ve bought so many books. We want all businesses in the area to succeed but this just fits so perfectly with my interests.”
The first time Frazer finally went to BookBar was in June to pick up an online order, a service that’s always been available, according to Sullivan.
“For years, we’ve been trying to get the message out that we can do online sales and we can do what those other guys can do and ship books to your house,” Sullivan laughed. “It took a pandemic to really get that message out, and thankfully our customers quickly shifted.”
The bar turned its big front window into a curbside pickup stand, where staff could hand patrons books without them having to come inside.
Sullivan said the book sales, surprisingly, carried the business throughout the pandemic. She said her bar sales were down 80 percent from 2019 but with the increase in book sales, the total revenue was down “only 10 percent.”
“This is not the kind of business you get into to make money,” Sullivan said. “But I think people are a lot more mindful about how important small businesses are… and if we don’t support them and just do what’s easy and cheap, we’re not going to have our small businesses anymore and that’s detrimental to a community.”
Small businesses shape neighborhoods, Frazer said. That’s why BookBar was an important factor in her decision to move to Berkeley, along with all the other businesses on Tennyson.
For Frazer, the best parts of a neighborhood are the people and the sense that all the residents are in it together. A neighborhood is a place where she can walk and bike and explore, and she’s glad she can still visit BookBar.
“I like to support local businesses,” Frazer said. “I think it’s like helping your neighbors in a way and having that hyperlocal connection with things you enjoy in your life, whether it’s food or drinks or books. I hope that more people can learn about some of our local businesses and maybe be inspired to walk down the block and check out a place they haven’t been to before.”
And one day, she’ll make it to Happier Hour.