Where Everybody Knows You’re Reading

I love reading in bars. This is a relatively new phenomenon in my life. If you do not like reading in bars, I contend that, like any good convert, you just haven’t found the right bar for you. I suggest a neighborhood bar. Alas, while there are many lovely things within walking distance from my house, a good bar is not one of them. To make my books and booze happen, I travel over the river and through the woods outside of my own neighborhood. I am the Goldilocks of bars. It cannot be too nice or too gross, but just dingy enough that the bar has and will stand the test of fads, gentrification, and awkward first dates.A neighborhood bar is an ideal place to read because it is adaptable. Eventually, it is familiar and worn enough to be your couch or armchair. But always it is remote enough that you don’t end up feeling guilty for the dishes in the sink. It can become a dedicated reading space. For those of us without offices or personal libraries (someday I plan on having a library that descends from the ceiling like the Cone of Silence, but that’s another story), a bar can serve as a little nest for reading. You can have your Jameson and your Joyce, your red wine and your Marquez, your PBR and your David Foster Wallace at a local haunt and devote yourself to that moment alone. (Please note that if I see you with a PBR and DFW I will mock you.)

I’ve encountered some internet chatter about how reading in bars is anti-social. Adding to that, I personally had a lot of turtle-y feelings about being talked at by strangers or dealing with being hit on. This was about 60% my own insanity and 9% reality. The other 31% was all about finding the right place. Yes, someone will speak words to you in a bar even if you have a book. Someone might think you’re waiting for a friend, a date, or just waiting to be chatted up. Mostly, though, I’ve found that your fellow bar dwellers make a little cordial small talk and move on unless – oh, frabjuous day!- you both like the same kind of books. And, as fellow readers, they will share your excitement, maybe discuss a book or two, and return to their regularly scheduled activities. They understand why you are there. As to being anti-social, if like me you find there are days when you just have nothing left for the universe you may need to do one of two things: 1. Stay home. Hide your face in your books and blankets instead. Or 2. Get the heck out of your house. A book in a bar just might be the safe but distinct space you need to shake off the doldrums.

Finding a neighborhood haunt is like finding the right furniture for you house. There are price considerations and, let’s face it, there’s no way to no way to know until you try. Below are my 6 steps to finding your ideal reader friendly booze haunt:

  1. The time you enjoyed wasting wasn’t wasted (but you could be): While driving isn’t out of the question (make good choices! Oh, you’re an adult and already know about this? Ok, good), since I plan on imbibing alcohol as well as literature, my ideal spot is also walkable or public transit accessible. Either way, I recommend going to the bar on the earlier side and getting some food. This should feel like the treat that reading is and therefore you should not have to worry about getting home safely. I like to devote my attention instead to the perfect combination of reading material, french fries, and delicious drinks.
  2. Applicable Material: Not every book is made for a neighborhood bar. This is a deeply personal decision we all must come to on our own. I find more “difficult” material more accessible in a busy hub. Others treat the bar as the place for their favorite lighter reads. Once I had found a spot I liked, I brought two books from my TBR pile. One was my current thriller I was zipping through at night and on breaks, another a dense piece of nonfiction. I read a chapter of each and the comparison helped me choose my material for the future. Some books will always work better in my house, but just like I love doing work at my desk or editing in a coffee shop, there is a deep satisfaction with going to just the right place with just the right book.
  3. Bartenders: Bars live and die by their bartenders, so look for the friendly kind that will also know when to leave you alone. Bartenders are great observers of behavior, so after watching you read and chat lightly over a couple of visits, a good bartender will pick up on your rhythm. If this doesn’t happen, this might not be the place for you.
  4. The Irregulars: A neighborhood joint depends on its neighbors. If the regulars really are sleazeballs hellbent on hookups or the bar becomes a dance floor every night at eight, you might want to try another place. On the flipside, I’ve had some fantastic conversations with the neighborhood regulars inspired by the book in my hands. Communities form around books no matter where you are and chances are a kindred spirit is in that pub. You can share a recommendation that will excite someone or receive one yourself. You’re not reading in seclusion, so while you should be able to actually get some reading done, don’t automatically assume you’re the only one interested in the story you hold.
  5. The Booze Itself: Did I mention this involves drinking? You’re shopping local here, so make sure you actually order something. If you’re still figuring out what kinds of drinks you like, tell your (hopefully) awesome bartender what your mood is. Feel free to share what kind of book you’re reading- I am a firm believer that all American detective fiction works well with a gimlet, and recently enjoyed my first rum & rye with a Terry Pratchett. If you have a tried and true beverage, your book and strange surroundings may add some new flavor.
  6. Don’t Care If They Like It: As always, we come back to the immortal lessons of Tina Fey and Amy Pohler. A bar can create a welcoming space that enriches your reading experience. Bartenders, your fellow customers, the food and the drink can all add to the tomb you’re downloading into your brain. But what you are doing is public. Don’t let that influence what you choose to read. Some rude lady might make fun of you for reading DFW and drinking PBR. Your bartender may not understand why a grown woman feels the need to read Nancy Drew, but she does make really good Slow Gin Fizzes and otherwise leave you alone. Who cares? Don’t care if they like it, ultimately this is about you liking it. So find what works for you, and stay open to what’s in store.

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