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St. Charles

Library coffee shops gaining ‘grounds’?

While sipping a hazelnut macchiato and reading Ernest Hemingway – or a frappuccino with William Faulkner or an espresso with Edgar Alan Poe – it becomes abundantly clear that books and coffee have a special relationship. Some libraries in Kane County have chosen to foster that relationship by incorporating coffee shops into their spaces. But the question remains over whether library coffee shops are a viable concept for all of those involved.

The Batavia and Sugar Grove public libraries operate coffee shops within their facilities, using outside vendors to lease spaces specifically designed for a coffee shop. 

Batavia’s library director George Scheetz said having Chapters Coffeehouse and Café within the library provides a little something extra that makes it a destination.

“It’s not a major money-making operation,” he said, adding that the café, which is located inside the entrance to the library, is on its third installment of coffee-shop vendors since its opening more than a decade ago. “All we’re trying to do is provide a great amenity for the community. Libraries are so much of a community gathering space … adding a food and drink element on site is part of the whole package.”

Twenty years ago, Scheetz said, the library coffee-shop concept started gaining momentum as bookstores began incorporating them into their spaces, and libraries were seeking ways to increase traffic and circulation.

“The coffee shop helped bookstores reinvent themselves and become a destination,” Scheetz said. “The trend gained momentum [in libraries] because of bookstores, but libraries don’t compete with bookstores and vice versa.”

As his first venture into the food service industry, Batavia resident Steven Kilberg, a former electrical engineer and current owner of Chapters Coffeehouse and Cafe, took over operations of what was formerly called 10 Street Coffee House, because the previous owner – Terry Kasper – wanted to retire.

“It wasn’t something I’d always dreamed of – no,” Kilberg said, adding that his two daughters and former wife had worked at the coffee house prior to his taking over ownership. “It was something that was there and it sounded kind of fun to do.”

Since opening less than a year ago, Kilberg said financially he is doing progressively better; he currently is breaking even. 

“It needs to be better yet,” said Kilberg, who can easily clock in 13-hour days. But he’s grateful for having what he deems as a key element to running a successful library coffee shop – foot traffic. “I hear people say, ‘There’s a lot of businesses that would die for the foot traffic you have’ – that’s a big thing.”

Roughly 900 people enter the Batavia library a day, Scheetz said. “If he gets even 10 percent of people who are coming to the library, that’s pretty good.”

The Sugar Grove Public Library’s coffee shop, Java Plus at The Book Nook Café, is owned by former music teacher Mike Morkert and his wife, Vicki. The Aurora residents reopened the coffee shop in June last year after the previous owner closed for financial reasons, Mike Morkert said. With eight years of experience in the coffee business – having owned and operated the Java Plus mobile coffee shop – the couple has doubled their business since laying roots in a permanent space, he said.

“There is still a ways to go to be where I would like it to be,” Mike Morkert said, adding that already having a reputation with his mobile coffee shop helped bring customers to the library. “Financially, it’s a win for me because the lease is very affordable.” 

The Sugar Grove library – which serves about 15,000 to 16,000 people in the community – built the space for a coffee shop to provide an added service to the public when it opened four years ago, said library director Carol Dolin, adding that it’s not an option every library should consider.

“I think it really depends on the situation and the location of the library, [the space that] is available and the disposable income in the [area],” Dolin said. “I don’t think I would count on a coffee shop to increase traffic to the library, because people who are coming to the library are coming for what the library has to offer. I think it’s a nice additional service, but I don’t think it’s a primary service of a library.”

Given the difficult economic times and the “proliferation of coffee shops,” Dolin said that though she likes the idea of having one, “it’s tough to make it a really profitable endeavor.” However, she also said she would like to see more libraries with coffee shops, because they are a nice fit.

In addition to running a mobile coffee shop and The Book Nook Café, Mike Morkert is hoping to capitalize on a business opportunity with the Aurora Public Library. The library received a $10.8 million Public Library Construction Act grant – the funding is part of a program designed to assist libraries undertaking major construction and remodeling projects – that will result in a new, 92,000-square-foot library, as well as a coffee-shop conversion of a room at the library’s Eola Road Branch. 

Morkert will discuss his coffee shop proposal for the Eola Road Branch with the library board in May. If it gets approved, “there would be a lot of work that would need to be done,” Morkert said, adding that it wouldn’t be functional until six to eight months down the road.

For libraries considering coffee shops, Scheetz said, “It’s easier to plan a space when [a library] is new [like Batavia and Sugar Grove libraries] instead of retrofitting it.”

See COFFEE, page 20

The St. Charles Public library currently does not have a coffee shop, but library director Pam Leffler said even while in the throes of a renovation, it would be difficult to justify carving out a space for a coffee shop when space is tight as it is.

“My sense is that if we ever have a bigger space, that might be something that we would look into,” Leffler said. “The way that our space is currently configured, I don’t think that that’s something we can reasonably expect to put in the library, particularly when we’re kind of running out of space for some of our core services.”

Before installing a coffee shop space, Leffler said libraries need to consider foot traffic, space requirements, staffing options, hours of operation and whether the library will profit from the coffee shop or lease a space to an outside vendor.

To fulfill a food and beverage service, the St. Charles library currently utilizes vending machines, but in the future, Leffler said the library will keep the coffee shop concept on its radar. 

“I think that we always need to be listening to what our patrons may want and paying attention to what our neighboring libraries are doing and how successful or not those ventures may be, so that we can be responsive to that, as well,” Leffler said.

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