A book club pairs Foundation's Epiphany Double IPA with Brit Bennett's novel
A book club pairs Foundation's Epiphany Double IPA with Brit Bennett's novel "The Missing Half," co-produced by the brewery and Print: A Bookstore. (Photo courtesy Foundation Brewing Company)
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Whether you’re an avid reader or a bar scene enthusiast, there’s something for you in Portland. 

At least, that’s how the owners of Novel Book & Bar, a soon-opening Congress Street joint, read the situation. Portland is home to plenty of great restaurants and bar scenes, but almost all cater directly to the food and drink. What’s missing is a more intellectual space to congregate where books are the focus. 

“Having books on the wall is an invitation for conversation,” said Josh Anes, who with business partner Nate Donovan aim to open Novel Book & Bar in June, eventually hosting book clubs, author talks and more.

a parking sign designates a spot outside what will become Novel Book and Bar, a new literary-themed café and bar in Portland
A sign designates a parking spot outside what will become Novel Book and Bar in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

Anes and Donovan aspire to bring a combination reading space and upscale bar with coffee and cocktails, a trend successfully pulled off elsewhere, like Elements in Biddeford or the Portsmouth Book & Bar in New Hampshire’s largest city.

In bringing the idea to Portland, the two hope to seize on a collective post-pandemic desire for more ways to connect socially. While Novel may not be the first book and cocktail bar fusion in the city (the West End bar LFK was designed with this kind of thing in mind), their arrival may be a sign that the intersection of social drinking and reading is expanding.

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, said the overestimated rise of e-books, whose expected popularity exceeded reality, illustrated just how much people appreciate physical books. A huge spike in book sales, during the pandemic especially, showed that.

That literary appreciation, coupled with a post-pandemic desire for connection, could be leading to increased enthusiasm for book clubs and other book-related events, he added. 

“We’re seeing people wanting that time [to socialize] now that things are more opened up than a couple years ago,” he said. “Maine has a thriving literary culture — and if anything it’s just growing — we see evidence for that all the time,” Fay-LeBlanc said.

The latest example, Back Cove Books on Woodford’s Corner, has been open five months now. Owner Becca Morton said the support and demand has been felt from newcomers and regulars since the beginning. 

“I think the isolation we experienced as a global community during the height of Covid found many of us seeking and missing our local community and nearness of others,” Morton said, adding that the store is “working diligently” to respond to requests for book clubs and other gatherings.

With Portland a “craft beer capital” of the U.S., there’s plenty of social draw to breweries and distilleries. Since the pandemic, they’re also becoming great spaces for literary events.

At Print: A Bookstore, just up the road from Novel’s new location on Congress Street, books and beer have developed a symbiotic relationship. The bookshop’s bestselling items are either staff recommendations or the titles it stocks for book clubs, said co-owner Josh Christie.

A cluster of book club members gather at Foundation Brewing Company for a biweekly reading group, co-hosted by Print: A Bookstore. (Photo courtesy of Foundation Brewing Company)
A cluster of book club members gather at Foundation Brewing Company for a biweekly reading group, co-hosted by Print: A Bookstore. (Photo courtesy of Foundation Brewing Company)

“That’s kind of the charm of an independent bookstore in general,” added Christie, a bookseller for over 19 years.

Print currently helps facilitate three public book clubs that meet regularly in bars. There’s “Books & Beer” at Banded Brewing in Bayside, not to be confused with “Books & Brews” at Foundation Brewing Company on Industrial Way, as well as “Reading the Rainbow,” an LGBTQ-focused book group held at Urban Farm Fermentory on Anderson Street, with proceeds benefiting the Equality Community Center. Print staff have organized the Banded and UFF programs, and partner with staff from Foundation Brewing Company to find books for theirs.

On Tuesday, March 28, “Books & Beer” was set to meet and discuss “The Book Eaters,” by Sunyi Dean. “Reading the Rainbow,” has its next meeting set for April 11, where members will explore “Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American,” by Laura Gao. Book club members get a 20-percent discount, enticing folks to join and support the store.

Foundation Brewing Company has found success with the partnership with Print, said Tina Bonney, the company’s business manager. The brewery began serving food last fall and started its monthly book club in February as a way of attracting new faces. The program runs through June, and each meeting pairs the discussed book with one of Foundation’s beers. Their Vista Pale Ale, for example, has been featured alongside TJ Klune’s novel “House in the Cerulean Sea,” centered around a unique home on a magical island.

While groups of friends start book clubs all the time, especially during the pandemic, Bonney appreciates that these partnerships add a new element.

“I think what’s kind of fun about this is most of the people don’t know each other already,” Bonney said. “It’s a fun way to meet new people interested in the same things that they are.”

Online book clubs, of course, spiked during the pandemic’s early days as a safer formal hangout option during social distancing. But their extended popularity also has to do with the availability and comfort of physical space. While Covid precautions are still recommended, Zoom fatigue has set in for us all, pushing more social meetups offline. Before the pandemic, Print’s three book clubs met in the bookshop’s tight browsing aisles. Now meeting in breweries, the communal places have more room for spacing and air ventilation.

That sort of community feel, or “third space” is something that Foundation has strived to cultivate over the years, Bonney said. 

Novel’s owners aim for the bar to occupy that kind of space, drawing patrons who want to fuse an interest in knowledge and literature with the need for more real social connection.

“A book is a unique experience,” Donovan said. “You can live any story you want just by looking around the room and picking something up. I think there’s a draw to that that might not be conscious.”

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