“Write an opening paragraph that starts in the middle of something,” I read from the tidy guide to suspense writing that I open on a visit to Santa Fe’s Beastly Books while scouting locations for this story. “This is not the time to go off on a tangent.”
This, then: in the middle of Tattered Cover in downtown Denver, in one of my earliest bookstore memories, I am sitting in an armchair among the shelves, flipping pages madly, and occasionally I glance up and meet, instead of words, the eyes of an adult reader, someone wandering in the rapt state that overcomes booklovers in such a setting, and when our eyes meet, they light up—theirs with pleasure at the fact of my young mind reading, mine with pleasure at taking these intermittent dips back into the world beyond the book in my hands, a world outside the story that still feels somehow within, that feels a little fetal, a little embryonic, a little like that watery domain of the womb.
I subsequently fell in love with, and lately have found myself craving, a certain cavernous, multistory genre of bookstore—along with the requisite café tucked somewhere in its midst—that can be hard to come by in New Mexico.
The bookstore coffee shop is about the coffee, but it is also about the space. In a sprawling store, it offers a retreat, a sort of den apart from but still within range of the quavering presence of all the thinking, the writing, the recipes. It offers, without leaving the comforting walls of books, a place to recharge the word-drunk brain—a mind driven into a pleasant stupor by an accumulated reading of first lines, blurbs, and love notes from the bookstore’s book-loving staff—with a bit of warmth and caffeine, something light to eat, and, crucially, seating.
Collected Works Bookstore & and Coffeehouse is the clearest approximation of this genre in New Mexico’s capital. In prepandemic times, I occasionally tucked into a comfortable chair in the coffee shop, sipping tea or coffee while savoring the first few pages of a new book. While there, I often observed tourists come in to “kill time” while their spouse shopped for things that didn’t interest them—and what better place to kill time than in a bookstore? Isn’t it the very act of killing time that brings us into time, that, like boredom, incites our awareness of it, inviting the eyes to study the shifting panes of afternoon light as they fall on the faces of the people in line to buy coffee?
Alas, the coffee shop at Collected Works stopped serving espresso and pastries at the onset of the pandemic, and had not resumed service the day I stopped in with my fantasy of reading all afternoon long. (The coffee shop has reopened since my visit, serving a pared-back menu of drinks made with Iconik beans.) I sat down for a few minutes anyway, read the first page of Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs, where the narrator, who at some point in the novel will work at a bookstore herself, says, “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had.” The coffee shop at Collected Works is full of windows that open to a busy street, yet it somehow feels like a den. I want to stay and keep reading, but I also want coffee.
This takes me over to Montezuma Avenue, to the aforementioned Beastly Books, a much newer bookshop that also has a coffee counter inside (serving beans sourced from Las Cruces’ Picacho Coffee Roasters). The barista is outrageously kind. The front room is filled, floor to ceiling, with autographed works by the store’s owner, George R. R. Martin. In the back room, where I find the guide to suspense writing, there is seating, tall-backed brown armchairs that look comfortable yet uninviting, as if put here as period props rather than as places to sit with a coffee while reading one of Martin’s horror stories. Even after purchasing an Americano, I feel, perhaps because of the lingering mask protocols, uncertain whether I’m actually allowed to sit down and drink it. Oh yes, I can, the barista assures me, and I avail myself of a sofa in one of the front rooms, wishing I’d ordered something stronger or accepted a second shot of espresso to get a better read on the coffee.
At this point, it’s worth asking: Why not read anywhere, in any café? Iconik’s Guadalupe Street location, hidden as it is, embodies some of the womb-ish atmosphere I’m looking for. They pull a nice cortado (called a Gibraltar on their menu) and also do good food, and there is often a creative buzz in the room.
Streusel tart with passion fruit curd at Montage Coffee and Wine. Photo by Briana Olson.
Going in this not-exactly-a-bookstore-coffee-shop direction, Garcia Street Books is another honorable mention, with the café Downtown Subscription right next door. Garcia Street boasts a nice cookbook selection alongside a well-curated fiction section; I pick one from the shelf of staff recommendations, Olga Ravn’s The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century, a strange, poetic work of fiction, aptly themed for this era where every establishment I walk into seems to have a HIRING sign. Similarly, in Albuquerque, Page 1 Books is a couple doors down from La Quiche Parisienne Bistro. To stretch this even farther, the excellent Silver City Book Shop is two blocks from Tranquilbuzz Coffee House.
But a good bookstore near a good coffee shop is not quite what I was craving.
What I did not expect was to find that the inverse of what I wanted could fulfill the same desires. At Montage Coffee and Wine in Los Ranchos, it is the bookstore—an outpost of Nob Hill’s Harvest Moon Books—that lurks in the depths of the coffee shop. This micro-bookstore shares an interior room with a tiny vintage shop. Across the room from a rack of dresses and a pinball machine, there is a small but beautifully curated collection of books—as if one of those well- and widely read bookstore employees prone to drafting love notes to good books had pulled out their newest and most interesting favorites, from Mayukh Sen’s Taste Makers to science fiction to a trans poetics anthology to the Cocktail Codex.
The beans at Montage are sourced from Little Waves, a mission-driven North Carolina roaster, and the coffee is good. But the drink itself is submerged by the total experience, from the friendly vibes to the music to the barista’s green vintage gown, and in particular by the pavlova from crumb, a tiny bakery serving Albuquerque and Los Ranchos.
In The Book of Delights, which I picked up at Collected Works, having waiting some months to buy a book whose author had the audacity to write such a thing, and name it as he did, in a time and place as catastrophic as the present, Ross Gay differentiates between pleasure—the pleasure, say, of eating a very good croissant—and delight. Gay conjectures that delight, like joy, might derive from a meeting of sorrows, a joining of human wildernesses. Putting into my mouth a bite of this pavlova, am I meeting the baker’s sorrow? I don’t know how to know that, but I can assert that the experience is one of delight, not mere pleasure. It has something to do with the whipped cream, which tastes more perfectly of whipped cream than any I can recall having eaten in recent memory, and it has something to do with the rose water, which along with the honey and pistachio and the absence of overpowering sweetness evokes the pastries of North Africa, in particular of Tunisia, where, as a boisterous Palestinian acquaintance once informed me, they make the best pastries in the world. The ground rose petals, sprinkled sparingly on top, briefly tickle my throat—but that sensation is gone so quickly I think I might have imagined it. And so is the pavlova, despite my efforts to eat it slowly, forkful by forkful, instead of picking it up and plunging half of it into my mouth all at once.
After I eat the pavlova, I check out the kitchen department of the vintage shop, tempted by a mug that reads “I heart California”—or maybe it was “I heart Los Angeles”—true for me in either case, but ultimately I decide to stay with the original mission, and buy Louise Erdrich’s new novel, The Sentence.