Independent Bookstores We Love: Denver’s BookBar

Audrey Vertovec
Dec 22, 2020

When Nicole Sullivan opened BookBar in 2013, she wanted to create a place in the community where people could gather, interact, learn, and bond over their love of books with a glass of wine in hand. “When my kids were little, after I put them to bed, I enjoyed sitting and reading with a glass of wine. I kept thinking about how I wanted a place outside of my house to do that. It was also hard to meet with my book club in places outside of our homes and wanted to make a place that was more book club friendly.”

Her vision came to life in the BookBar space, located in the Highlands neighborhood of Denver, Colorado. The shop feels like a home living room full of shelves stuffed with books. The small corner bar serves coffee, cocktails, and small plates, and the shop curates the ideal gathering environment, encouraging patrons to relax, exchange ideas, browse the never-ending shelves of books, or attend one of the several literary events that BookBar hosts daily. BookBar also works to give books to community members who might not otherwise have access to them through their non profit, BookGive.

In the age of online shopping and e-books, independent bookstores have had to improvise and revisit their approach to corner the market. Still, Sullivan knows that there is nothing quite like the experience of browsing shelves, so she created a space that encourages patrons to browse and has hired a team to provide recommendations. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she had to adapt to provide patrons with this same treasured experience while remaining safe.

“We didn’t necessarily go in thinking we would purchase a gas station, but with our drop off and pick up model, and high availability of out of service gas stations in Denver, it made sense," says owner Nicole Sullivan when discussing her bookstore plans.

“We didn’t necessarily go in thinking we would purchase a gas station, but with our drop off and pick up model, and high availability of out of service gas stations in Denver, it made sense," says owner Nicole Sullivan when discussing her bookstore plans.

The new way to buy books

When local regulations led to the closure of BookBar in March, Sullivan and her team initially moved to fulfill orders online. But when it became clear that the pandemic would last longer than a few weeks, they knew they had to get creative in order to survive. They used an already existing built-in pickup window to fulfill pick-up orders, and Sullivan’s husband began using a retrofitted cargo bike as a  “Book Bike” to complete drop-off orders in the surrounding area. 

Under their current model, they allow one household in at a time for browsing by appointment, masks are required, and they have removed indoor seating to gear people away from lingering. When a customer makes an appointment, BookBar will send them a questionnaire outlining their interests so employees can do some preliminary shopping for suggested books, potentially cutting down the time a customer is in the store.

Before COVID, BookBar bustled with in-person events: author talks, happy hours, classes, and even drag queen story hour. Those events have since gone virtual. “At first we took a hiatus, but after [determining that] this was the new normal, we realized we needed to meet the demand and take things virtual. So, we watched a lot of YouTube videos on how to make the most of Zoom.” BookBar’s calendar is now packed with various virtual events, allowing patrons to connect and interact with one another, continuing to fill a need all communities have right now.

Moving events to be virtual had an upside. Authors and publishing houses were still looking for opportunities to market their books, so there was an increased opportunity to host events that may not have otherwise been possible due to geographic and cost limitations. Hosting virtual events also allows BookBar to connect with customers outside of Denver, an added plus.

“There’s such a need for books right now, particularly with libraries and schools being closed." - Nicole Sullivan, Owner, BookBar

While they offer wine, coffee, and snacks to-go and provided service on their patio over the summer, Sullivan has had to focus more on the sale of books during the pandemic. Recently,  they began building and selling “Book Bundles”, a package containing a surprise book in the customer’s chosen genre, a bottle of wine or a four-pack of beer, and a cookbook.

“There’s such a need for books right now, particularly with libraries and schools being closed,” says Sullivan.

Despite the challenges brought on by COVID-19 Sullivan was inspired to launch a new project this year: BookBar Press, an in-house publishing and author services company. In 2018, BookBar partnered with the Denver Center of Performing Arts to launch a showcase of micro plays - 5 plays under 15 minutes each were chosen out of 200+ to be performed for the Denver theatre community. The first book to be published under BookBar Press is the published anthology of these plays, titled “Bite Size”. BookBar Press also supports authors in marketing, selling, and distributing their books to other independent bookstores.

“There’s nothing that will replace the experience of browsing books at a store. I have discovered so many new books and authors that I wouldn’t have discovered from past-purchased algorithms. Having knowledgeable and passionate booksellers that are just waiting for people to come in and talk books with them is part of the whole experience,” says Nicole Sullivan when describing the BookBar experience.

BookBar has done well with their online sales during the pandemic, and Sullivan hopes to see that continue when the world opens up again. “With everyone having no choice but to make purchases online, we hope that customers see just how easy it is to support an independent bookseller as it is to order from Amazon.”

“We constantly feel like we are running around like chickens with our heads cut off. It’s not just us; from watching social media and staying in touch with other booksellers, we aren’t alone in this. All small businesses are struggling right now,” reminds Sullivan. “The community has really shown up for us, and I hope other businesses are experiencing the same. If the community keeps shopping local, especially through the holidays, I think we are going to make it.”

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