When Dakota County asked people in Eagan what they wanted in a remodeled library, the No. 1 item on the wish list had nothing to do with books. It was lattes, cappuccinos and muffins.
Today, though, after two agonizing stabs at fulfilling those dreams, the coffee shop space sits empty.
Ramsey County drew national acclaim in the 1990s for placing a coffee bar in the Roseville library, and it still thrives. But two decades later, librarians are close to giving up on the oh-so-Minnesota marriage of caffeine and literacy.
A Ramsey County library in Shoreview, just as ambitious as Roseville’s, won’t have a coffee shop when it opens in 2017. Two vendors opened coffee bars at the Stillwater library, with gorgeous views over the St. Croix Valley, but neither succeeded.
“A lot of people have tried coffee shops, and a few successfully — Ridgedale has worked, downtown Minneapolis has worked. But a lot have not worked,” said Susan Nemitz, library director in Ramsey County. “And there’s a whole story behind that.”
The story begins with two undeniable facts: There are plenty of places to buy coffee these days, and the number of people coming through library doors has taken a terrific tumble in recent years.
As more and more library services become available online, such as e-book downloads and database research, annual visits to branches of the major Twin Cities library systems have dropped by nearly 1.7 million since 2011.
Marlene Moulton Janssen, who runs the Anoka County library system, knows that lots of users view coffee bars as a piece of the “welcoming ambience they hope libraries will provide.” Plumbing for a coffee bar was even included at the newly renovated Northtown branch in Blaine. But she said there “no concrete plans” to go beyond that.
In a metro area that’s nationally renowned for its “forward thinking when it comes to libraries,” said New York-based library planning consultant Alex Cohen, it’s a pity that this one innovation has been such a struggle.
“Patrons want communal spaces and need reasons to go there,” he said. “In a Tampa library we’re doing a cooking demo area visible to the street, and it’s a driver for visits — people want to know how to cook. It’s a really popular program. Library coffee shops can have that same effect, drawing the demographic libraries want: creative people, Wi-Fi users, seeking congenial spaces.”
The obstacles for coffee bars, though, are immense — especially if the goal is to make money or at least break even.
Eagan benefited from having not only the busiest library in Dakota County — Wescott — but also an affluent clientele and a well-heeled volunteer group willing to invest $50,000 to outfit the shop.
Even so, the venture gasped for breath for years, finally falling into the hands of the city of Eagan until it, too, threw in the towel.
“If you’re doing more than just putting out a coffee urn on the honor system,” said Eric Austin, who managed the Eagan library at the time, “it’s a major venture that took years to assemble. We went with an extremely polished and professional proposal from a pair of young, hip-looking guys who were working as baristas. And they found it tough.”
One issue, Austin found, was that people most often are ready for coffee earlier in the morning than when libraries open, typically around 10 a.m. By then, many have had their coffee fix.
“That’s a big slice of traffic [we] can’t capture,” Austin said. “The way our coffee shop was situated, even if we could have opened the building for the coffee shop, we’d have to have had library staff on hand. And it wasn’t feasible to pay for the two people we’d need, for safety reasons.”
It also helps to be able to draw coffee customers from outside the library. The only coffee bars functioning in the entire Hennepin County system, said Lois Lenroot-Ernt, of the county’s capital projects office, are those with major foot traffic beyond library users per se.
“Minneapolis Central is downtown in a prime location,” she said, and the regional libraries at Ridgedale and Brookdale “are also doing taxpayer services and district courts.”
One reason for Roseville’s success, Nemitz said, was the lack of gourmet coffee shops in the area in the ’90s. These days, though, they’re everywhere.
As much as patrons yearn for a coffee bar, librarians say, they are conscious of the struggles of a place like the Maplewood library. Despite a busy site near the huge Maplewood Mall, the library’s coffee shop went through three operators in six years, winding up this year with a hybrid Thai cafe.
Dakota County just a few months ago finally gave up on Eagan, after a stutter-step, start-and-stop process that first began during the Bush Administration in 2007.
But Austin admits he’s loath to give up altogether.
“Could we have still coffee with doughnuts and soft drinks?” he said, sighing. “I just can’t let go of that idea that it could all work. We kicked around the idea of trying again after the city pulled out, but I think if we sought a private vendor it would have to be someone doing it on the side, a retired couple with no driving need for profit.
“But by that point we were just exhausted.”