The other night I poured myself a drink (Great Divide’s Hibernation Ale), pulled up a book I’m reading on my iPad (Daniel Abraham’s Age of Ash), and curled up under a lamp in a quiet corner of my apartment to read. Nothing was allowed to change in that hour: not what I drank, not where I sat, not what I did. Ignore the cats pawing at the office door. Try to ignore all online temptation. Don’t talk. Just sit in that warm pool of light and read.
This might sound like a normal night of reading at home. I don’t know what your rituals are. But I was pretending I was reading at my favorite bar.
I can’t read in that bar anymore, and not just because I live in a different city; like so many small businesses, it closed last year. From a distance, my partner and I left Instagram comments and texted with the owner; I cried when a dear friend mailed us a pair of coasters.
A bar, like a book, is more than the sum of its parts. It’s not just bar stools and sticky tables, no more than a book is just pulped trees and scratches of ink. It’s everything you bring to it: birthdays and unexpected New Year’s Eve celebrations, ill-advised late weeknight conversations and afternoons on a sunny patio, friendships with the bartenders and a first-name basis with the regulars (and their dogs). It’s singalongs with your favorite songs and board game night at the biggest table and that one time none of your friends would play you in Mario Kart 64 because somehow, you kept winning.
A book, like a bar, is what you make of it—what you bring to it and take away from it, and all of the things you experience while you’re reading it, no matter how small. Those things can be the comforts of home, of pajamas and pillows and a hot cup of tea; they can be the discomfort and curiosity of travel, pages turned in between glimpses out an airplane or bus window. That moment you’re reading a book on the subway and you look up and the person across from you is holding the sequel. The way an uncomfortable patch of park lawn under your blanket feels smooth as glass when you’re caught up in a climactic battle.
I have always been a person who has a book in my bag, and so, I have always been a person who reads wherever I am: in line at the post office, in uncountable coffee shops, while waiting for movies to start, over lunch in the park or a cafe, at my desk, while stirring risotto, while walking (very carefully!), while waiting to see a band, on the train, on the bus, on the beach… and at the bar.
I’ve missed this more than I might have expected, these last two years.
It’s a small thing, in the grand scheme of things we’re all missing. But we miss things for a reason, and it’s okay to miss parts of our lives that we can’t access right now. Those things are comforting, comfortable, soothing; they’re how you relax, how you get inspired, how you mark your days and make your choices. Some people miss the gym. Some people miss shopping. I miss reading in bars. I miss reading anywhere that isn’t home, but I especially miss reading in bars.
Here is what a bar can offer a reader: A drink, obviously. Doesn’t have to be alcoholic. Can be more than one, depending on your focus level and what you need to do afterwards. Snacks that someone will bring to you, from a limited list of options. When you have specific snack desires, choose your watering hole accordingly. Often a perfect pocket of light, whether from the candles you’ve carefully slid into your corner of the bar or onto your table, or because you wisely sat down right under one of the few gently glowing lamps.
Maybe there’s a fireplace. Maybe there’s a bartender you know, or at least chat with, who might ask what you’re reading or offer a smile when you look up or, if you’re really lucky, refill your drink when you’re too engrossed to manage even that small exchange. They know what you like; they’ll put it on your tab. Maybe there’s a patio with no one else on it, and it’s just warm enough that you can relax your shoulders and lean up against the warm stone wall behind you.
When you read in bars, the bars become part of the story. I hunched over Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven King in my corner of the Diamond, reading there because at home I would have read too fast and it would have been over too quickly. I read Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us in a sunny pub over a flight of beers with goofy names: Unbalanced Breakfast, Pineapple Juice Invader. In an airport bar that served wine in regular and large pours, I started Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers (with a large pour for a large book). Sometimes a book that is too heavy when you’re at home alone can find some lightness in a room full of boisterous joy, even when the setting seems incongruous. Sometimes you just have to try not to cry in public.
There is one bright, perfect, intangible thing a bar—or a coffeeshop, or a restaurant, or a corner of the park—can give you: when you choose that space for reading, you leave everything else behind. The dishes aren’t yelling from the sink; the laundry pile isn’t creeping into view; the cats aren’t kicking litter all over the floor; the to-be-read shelf isn’t looming, asking when it’s going to get its turn. The projects you’ve been avoiding stay at home, where they belong; if you’re very clever and leave your phone at home (or at least in your bag), email stays there, too. Writing in coffeeshops gets all the attention, but reading in bars is just as good, just as freeing, just as much a change of pace and scenery and background noise. It’s permission to do nothing else.
And, if you live in a place where you don’t have your own little patch of outdoors, a bar backyard is an escape. New Yorkers know this; they know which restaurants hide overgrown patios in the back, which tiny cafes are home to plant-strewn back decks, which sidewalk seating gets the best sun. As Alexander Chee put it:
NYC apartments are small. Work life can be small. A bar or restaurant cafe is like a living room or garden or fantasy space you lease by the beverage or meal.
— Alexander Chee (@alexanderchee) February 8, 2022
(This is also how I travel, but we phrase it less elegantly: Sometimes you gotta go, and you rent a bathroom for the price of a pint or cup of coffee.)
It can take a while to find the right reading bar. You want one on the quieter side, but not empty. The light is important. The correct vibe is different for everyone, but it has to be right (though sometimes reading in a bar that seems to disapprove of you reading in it can be its own kind of fun). It has to be the kind of place people stay for a while, and not a place with high turnover and people waiting for every open seat. In this particular moment in time, for me, it has to have outdoor seating, which is an extra wrinkle. But I think I’ve finally found my new local: not too big, not too small, with a solid menu of snacks and a warm patio out back. The sooner spring comes, the sooner I can see how it does.