New Café Mixes Many Parts Booze, Some Parts Book

“Hey, don’t walk out with that!” shouted Brian Butterick, general manager of the recently opened Rapture Cafe & Books. He chased after a person exiting the store around 2 a.m. on Jan. 1.

The offending patron had made off with an item not removed from Rapture’s floor-to-ceiling bookcase or freestanding news racks—which were stocked with everything from The Joy of Cooking to Handjobs magazine—but rather from the bar: an open bottle of Rolling Rock.

Like countless locales around the city, the new venue at 200 Avenue A had thrown a New Year’s Eve party, complete with champers and other alcohol—despite the fact that Rapture doesn’t have a liquor license. Yet.

“We had a [licensed] caterer,” explained Mr. Butterick.

The fledgling East Village retailer, which otherwise offers a selection of organic teas and coffees, probably won’t have to outsource its bar services for much longer, however.

Rapture owner Joe Birdsong expects to receive his license to sling suds any day now, as the State Liquor Authority’s four-month-long freeze on processing such permits expired with the change in the calendar year.

The bohemian-style café’s entry into the booze business won’t technically exacerbate what many S.L.A. critics have denounced as a citywide proliferation of liquor licenses in recent years. Mr. Birdsong is simply taking the existing license from the location’s prior tenant, the Clockwork Orange–themed Korova Milk Bar.

Keeping the license at that address was of particular concern to the building’s landlord, Mr. Birdsong said: “The owner doesn’t want to lose the value attached to it.”

Of course, the ability to continue alcohol sales at the site undoubtedly would be a boon to the bookseller, too.

It will certainly help boost Rapture’s revenues during a time of economic uncertainty for many of the city’s independent book stores. Most notably, hallowed midtown literary haunt (and comparatively dry venue) Coliseum Books is scheduled to shutter on Jan. 6, following a weeks-long liquidation sale amid Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

Not that Rapture’s ownership would choose to emphasize the alcoholic content of its business plan, penned by Mr. Birdsong.

In fact, his proposal barely mentions the venue’s “extensive and unique beer and wine menu,” even though his pending permit would grant him the freedom to serve Jägermeister shots or far stiffer drinks, if he wanted to.

A wise strategy. Given the city’s current bar-wary climate, prospective restaurateurs and tavern operators are subject to an ever-increasing degree of scrutiny.

Even a self-described “nice little neighborhood Internet café–bookstore–performance space” is not immune, as Mr. Birdsong found out when he appeared this past September before local Community Board 3, a panel that specifically singled out Avenue A as a bad example of area bar sprawl.

In order to garner community approval for his own “limited bar,” Mr. Birdsong had to promise in writing that his proposed literary hangout would not someday morph into a troublesome, boozy nightspot.

Specifically, he was required to submit a “signed notarized stipulation” that Rapture would “operate as a bookstore with the service of alcoholic beverages incidental to its operation as a bookstore” and “with the predominant space being used for bookshelves,” according to the minutes of that meeting.

Even as originally proposed, however, the business is predominantly more café than bookstore.

According to Mr. Birdsong’s business plan, less than half of the venue’s 2,200-square-foot space (about 650) would be devoted to bookshelves and magazine racks.

A diagram of the space submitted to the community board last fall showed this area lined by two lengthy bookcases, with five smaller kiosks in between.

Meanwhile, the café area—featuring a bar longer than either bookcase, as well as several tables, a sofa, bench seating and a small stage—occupied about 1,000 square feet. Restrooms, a downstairs office and storage area, plus a 400-square-foot courtyard in back, rounded out the total space.

Moreover, the bookstore component could be reduced even further, as the kiosks were “specially designed to literally roll away from the main floor and transform the space into one possessing the capacity to house audience-friendly seating for special events,” according to the business plan.

When the store finally opened for business last month, the bookstore portion looked even less substantial than it did on paper, with books confined to one row of shelves, not two, and only three kiosks instead of five.

Yet even in this diminished capacity, Mr. Birdsong argued, Rapture’s inventory significantly increases the neighborhood’s collective literary cachet.

“There’s no place to buy new books in that part of town—actually, anywhere between Third Avenue and the river,” he said. “Or between 14th Street and Houston, really.”

Mr. Birdsong further played up his place’s creative cred with promises of future author signings, poetry readings, art exhibits and burlesque performances.

“Presenting another bar where people can get drunk for cheap is not what we’re really about,” he said. “We really want to look at this as more of a cultural destination.”