Cup is empty for New Lenox library’s coffee shop
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org December 13, 2013 11:02PM
A sign at the New Lenox Public Library in December lets patrons know that the Bookworm Cafe is closed. | File photo
Updated: December 13, 2013 11:02PM
A poor economy, the poor health of one operator and simply not enough traffic are the reasons that four coffee shops have checked out of the New Lenox Public Library in the past 12 years.
The most recent one, the Bookworm Cafe, closed up shop Dec. 8 after 14 months of serving library patrons in the village Commons on Veterans Parkway.
Curling up with a hot coffee and good book seems like a winning combination — one that has worked in many bookstores — and in other libraries, including Oak Lawn and Joliet.
Andy Vaitkus, who operates the successful Bookworm Cafe in the Oak Lawn Public Library at 9427 S. Raymond Ave., just closed his second location in New Lenox.
“Oak Lawn is 20 times busier,” he said. “The people say they all want a coffee shop, but no one would come in (to New Lenox). I’m not sure why.”
“We are so sad. We really wanted this to work,” New Lenox library director Kate Hall said. The board of trustees will discuss what to do with the shuttered space at its meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the library.
“People love the idea of a coffee shop, but when it comes down to it, it’s an added expense. It’s cheaper to go home,” she said.
The Novel Brew was the first vendor and lasted a few years before the economy tanked, library officials said.
The space was vacant for about a year before a father-daughter team filled it with Windy City Espresso. In 2011, the operator of the Book and Bean Cafe at the Joliet Public Library’s Black Road branch opened a second shop in New Lenox, but illness curtailed that operation, which has continued in Joliet with a new owner.
That was followed by the now-closed Bookworm Cafe.
Hall said the library sees 600 patrons each day, but not all are buying coffee or a snack.
The cafe, which offered drinks and sandwiches, was open beyond the library’s hours, and patrons were allowed to carry a covered beverage into the library.
The biggest reason for its demise was a lack of foot traffic, Hall said, despite the library’s proximity to the village hall, police station, the Old Plank Road bike trail and the park district’s community center. The next-closest cup of coffee for sale was at the McDonald’s restaurant, less than a quarter-mile away.
“If he can make a go of it in Oak Lawn and not here, it must be the foot traffic,” New Lenox Library Board President Lou Broccolo said. “I think it will be this way until the economy improves. It’s a shame. I would like to see it stay a coffee shop.”
Oak Lawn library director Jim Deiters said his facility is more centrally located, right off busy 95th Street. With the nearby village hall and police station, the Bookworm Cafe there draws a lot of non-library patrons and promotes lunch specials to encourage village employees to dine there.
Vaitkus is the third vendor to operate the Oak Lawn library cafe and has been there for a few years, Deiters said.
“He makes great food and offers concerts, music and Friday specials,” he said.
Similarly, Tammy Hudson-Duckworth, who runs the Book and Bean Cafe at Joliet’s Black Road library branch, said she could not survive on coffee and library patrons alone.
On a recent afternoon, young customers munched on grilled cheese sandwiches while playing a game with their mother. At another table, a Minooka resident, Ralph Sporck, said she traveled there to crochet scarves over a cup of coffee. Her scarves are on display at the cafe, as are framed photos promoting the children’s book of a local author.
“It’s comfy here,” said a regular patron, Freida Sullivan, of Crest Hill. “I always get my books and have a little something.”
Hudson-Duckworth said her secret is that she views her cafe customers like a “small-town community.”
She takes time to know them personally and build relationships. While library patrons are her “bread and butter,” she said, she knows she has to reach outside the library and does that by hosting special events and serving Intelligentsia coffee.
The “sit-n-stitch” group, in which Sporck participates, meets there every Wednesday and Sunday. A game group gathers on Saturdays. There are open mike nights and tea parties, according to the Book and Bean website.
A vendor also has to be willing “not to make money for a year,” Hudson-Duckworth said. “It takes time to build a business.”
She has been there two years and plans to sign another contract.
Oak Lawn and Joliet may be larger libraries on busier streets, but the demise of the fourth vendor in the New Lenox library’s cafe has officials scratching their heads.
Hall said she talked to other library officials with cafes and said, “They’ve all had problems. It’s a struggle.”
The library does not make money on the cafe but has offered it as a “value-added service” to its patrons, she said.
The New Lenox library board will go back to Square One and mull all options — find another vendor, install vending machines, establish a store for community organizations, create an art gallery, or design it as an academic area.
“We have to look at what’s best for the library long-term,” Hall said.