PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Housed in a stately granite building that was once a customs house and Post Office, the Portsmouth Book & Bar complements perfectly the well-scrubbed cobblestones of the downtown streets. The imposing granite exterior gives way to an airy open floor plan; overstuffed couches nestle among display tables, tall bookshelves, and taller windows. The walls are sparely adorned with posters for the performers that have given concerts here.
There is an actual bar, of course, a small marble number with eight draft lines and as many high-backed stools. Customers lay claim to the small tables in front of the bar, squinting at laptops and paperbacks over coffee or beer. Crowds file in at lunch and dinner for house-made granola and locally sourced sandwiches. The roasted beet salad is served with a sizable hunk of chevre.
The Book & Bar, opened last December, is a hybrid of two businesses notoriously difficult to launch, especially in a weak economy with a struggling retail sector. But over the intervening months — the same months during which President Obama enraged booksellers everywhere when he skipped his annual visit to Bunch of Grapes, Martha’s Vineyard’s independent bookstore, and made a televised appearance at Amazon’s Chattanooga warehouses instead — the Book & Bar has won a following.
“People are rooting for us because we’re bucking a trend,” David Lovelace said. Lovelace, Jon Strymish, and John Petrovato own the Book & Bar. “We’ve got what Amazon has, except we actually exist: We have a scene. We have a community. There are actual humans here that are conversing.’’
The ranks of brick-and-mortar bookstores have been famously enervated by Internet commerce; membership in the American Booksellers Association decreased by about 800 stores in the past decade, 1,500 over the last 20 years.
But as The Christian Science Monitor reported this spring, small bookstores are starting to see an increase in sales. What’s more, at least 160 independently owned shops have opened since 2009.
The Book & Bar has had a busy summer, Lovelace said. But the partners won’t be wholly convinced of their success until they’ve gotten through another season. “It doesn’t take tourists [to know we’ve made it] because they’re going to stumble in no matter what — and that’s great,” he said. “But what’s really going to help us in the winter is the locals.”
To lure them in, the trio has devised a number of measures that have nothing to do with paper wares: In addition to author talks, their event series features monologists and musical acts. In addition to book clubs, there are writers’ groups and table-top game nights. Come winter, they hope to show films after hours. They’re the only place in town that makes the frothy mix of espresso and milk known as the cortado. They’re in the market for an absinthe fountain.
Every bookstore from Barnes & Noble to Brookline Booksmith boosts revenue by selling items only tangentially related to the main attraction. But instead of journals, book lights, or other tchotchkes, customers at the Portsmouth Book & Bar buy beer, wine, and charcuterie — comestibles designed to keep them browsing.
“The way the book industry is going, people don’t want to go to bookstores to look for books,” said Strymish. “People want to go to bookstores to be in touch with books.” This summer, Book & Bar’s beer and book sales were about equal.
Strymish and his partners hope they’ve created nothing less than a book-saturated community space and, in an age where opening a bookstore seems like a fool’s errand, a sustainable business model. “This is the future of bookstores,” Petrovato said.
Lovelace, Strymish, and Petrovato met in the early 1990s, just before the advent of Amazon and the mega-chains that have wiped out about 75 percent of all independent bookstores in the United States. They worked together at the Montague Bookmill in Western Mass., a capacious used-book store and bar with the pithy slogan, “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” When the store went up for sale, Lovelace and Petrovato bought it. Later, they opened the first Raven Used Books in Northampton, with outlets in Boston and Cambridge to follow. Meanwhile, Strymish went back to work at the New England Mobile Book Fair, his 35,000-square-foot family business on the site of a former tennis racket factory in the Newton Highlands.
Lovelace and Petrovato sold the Bookmill to a screenwriter in 2008, and the Strymish family sold the Book Fair to a retired management consultant in 2011. The trio set out to create a prototype that could help wrest bookstores away from the digital and corporate realms and cede them back to locals. They looked at storefronts from Portland to Boston, settling on Portsmouth both because of the people — a pedestrian-heavy community of 21,000 that supports three other bookstores — and the property.
“This space is amazing,” said Lovelace, who did much of the carpentry work himself. His friend Boston architect Nathan Sargent designed the store for free, aiming to draw people in through books to a dining area surrounded by books. Lovelace was careful not to install too many electrical outlets. “I watched the Internet transform the Bookmill cafe from a place where people had piles of books and were showing them to each other to a place where people went on dates with two laptops,” he said. “We would rather accommodate community than Wi-Fi.”
Next, they needed that other great community-builder: booze. But before they could get a liquor license, they needed to serve food. “The cafe is a boring model to us now; Barnes & Noble does it,” Petrovato said. “We thought we might as well do it seriously, so we hired a real chef from Austin, Texas, to develop the menu, train the staff, and run the restaurant.” Although they serve breakfast and have a healthy lunch crowd, he said, they focused on afternoon and evening meals.
Strymish, a former board member of Club Passim and a fixture at Boston folk concerts, books musical acts to pull crowds in at night. Each month, about a half-dozen bands and singer-songwriters draw crowds of 60 to 80 people.
“We have free concerts that they’re charging $10 to $15 in Boston for,” Petrovato said. “We don’t have a cover charge, and we pay the band. When we have shows, half of the people are there specifically for the shows, and the other half stumble in and end up staying.” Some even buy books.
About those books: There was never a question of selling new ones. “When you sell new books, you have to compete with huge corporations and be willing to sell them for a lot less than they do,” Strymish said. By selling used books and publishers’ remainders at 50 to 75 percent off the list price, Portsmouth Book & Bar appeases bargain-hungry customers, squelching their impulse to go home to find a better deal online.
“People are very aware of prices on Amazon,” Petrovato said. “We price somewhat in line with Amazon, so people can come in here and feel confident that they’re not going to pay more than they would online.”
Although offered at a bargain, the selection at Portsmouth Book & Bar has been selected to avoid the look of many used bookstores, what Lovelace categorizes as “cramped shelves and musty thrillers.” The owners buy all the books themselves. “We’re really picky because we don’t have a lot of space for books,” Petrovato said.
On a recent day, Brian Smestad sat on a couch with a cup of coffee and a laptop. Smestad, a photographer and cookbook publisher, uses the Book & Bar as a meeting place for friends and clients. “There’s nothing like it downtown,” he said.
Sharon Gobat, a New England native who now lives in Switzerland, was browsing the shelves. Passing through Portsmouth on her way to Boston, she scanned a QR code that led her to the Book & Bar. “This place is great,” she said. “I’ve lived in Switzerland for 13 years, and there aren’t any independent bookstores.”
Later that evening, Rachel Ries and her band — that night’s entertainment — sat at a table with salads and beer. “All of us [in the band] are literature and language nerds, so it’s comforting to be here,” said bassist Zachariah Hickman.
Seth Jeacopello, who lives in Dover, sat at the bar with his sister. “I just popped in here one day, and now I come here a couple of times a week,” he said. “It’s not your typical bar environment.” He hasn’t bought a book yet. He doesn’t have to.
Eugenia Williamson, a writer and editor living in Somerville, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.