For me, it started in San Francisco — probably a mix of that gloriously extroverted city combined with my 23-year-old new-drinker self. I’d find a nice bar with good natural light, show up early with my book and read.
Back then, it would’ve been a beer. There’s a kind of decadence to reading in bars. You get privacy and a drink. You get the world of your book and a drink. You get atmosphere and a drink.
Years later, now in Pittsburgh, I still do it. A luxury. I make plans to meet someone at Kelly’s at 6, for instance, or Butterjoint at 7, but I show up at 5 for an hour or two alone with my book and a cocktail (a Manhattan at Kelly’s, a Sazerac at Butterjoint). Sipping, reading, slowly turning pages, rereading, thumbing through the opening again. I take my time, because time seems to stop in bars at a certain time of day. I’m reading through happy hour and the city is on hold.
Recently, I was stood up twice at the The Livermore in East Liberty. The standing up was just your standard comedy-of-errors miscommunication, but with all that plate glass, it was the perfect place to ease my book out of my bag, sip, read, and look up every so often at the world going by.
I’m not alone. I started asking around about reading in bars — who did it, who used to do it, who does it now. Everyone seems to have their own particular ritual.
Karla Boos, actor and artistic director for Quantum Theater, is a frequent bar reader. She learns her lines in bars, finds new plays to produce in bars, and gets pretty much all of her reading done on a bar stool. Her recent favorite haunt is Casbah in Shadyside. She loves that she can bike there easily from her East Liberty office. Once seated on a comfy bar stool, she orders a Sauvignon Blanc, and bellies up. Fiona, the bartender, knows the score and lets her do her thing, which is read. When Karla’s daughter Ana was little, Karla would read with her in coffeeshops in the morning, but now that Ana is off on her own, Karla has settled into this silent social routine.
Fiona says patrons regularly read at Casbah. It isn’t always a book, but sometimes from an iPad. “Guys read from iPads,” she says. The bar at Casbah is at a constant low-key bustle. Couples saunter in off South Highland Avenue to settle in, order drinks and appetizers, and chat. Groups meet up at the low tables before they’re seated for dinner. Karla likes the white noise they create for her. She wants to be right in the middle of it while she times out.
On the other hand, local writer and professor Jeffrey Condran likes his little corner at Easy Street, the bar on the ground floor of One Oxford Centre on Grant Street, Downtown. I met him at 3 on a Monday afternoon. The bar sports a lot of angles and sharp reflective glass. Entering, it feels both dark and shiny. Rock-and-roll plays over the sound system — Van Halen and Bob Seger. It’s like a buffed-up Hopper painting as single men and women sit around the circular bar in business attire, sipping a beer or wine or a cocktail, staring at the TV, checking their smartphones, silent.
Jeff likes a stool near the window, which is remarkably private. The bartender knows his name, knows to make him a gin martini with olives, and she has also bought his new novel, “Prague Summer.” She read his story collection on the beach during her vacation, she tells me. The manager has Jeff’s books, too. He waves hello.
Easy Street is a great escape for Jeff. He loves his time there — not teaching, not yet home. He’s in a limbo where he can read and read and no one asks him to do anything. He fits into the Hopperesque scene: The professor near the window with a blazer and dress shirt, sipping his cocktail, reading a thick, literary hardback: “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” by Francine Prose. It’s from another time, this scene. Jeff stays after I finish my wine. As I walk out, no one looks up.
When I meet up with Rob Press, he’s all set with his sunglasses, tank top, beer and book at one of the sunny outside tables at Lot 17 in Bloomfield. We had originally agreed to meet at Sonny’s bar on Millvale Avenue, but Rob forgot his bike lock while riding to work at UPMC that morning, so he wanted to sit in a spot where he could keep an eye on the bicycle.
Rob is a bar reader’s bar reader. As he put it: “I don’t go to a bar to read. I read in a bar.” Today he is reading Richard Powers’ “Orfeo,” a novel he checked out of the Carnegie Library. He gets all of his books there and figures he averages about a book a week throughout the calendar year.
Rob has been reading in Pittsburgh bars since 1999. Bars he frequents include but are not limited to: Sonny’s, The Squirrel Cage, Brillobox, Armand’s, Thunderbird, Howler’s, Hemingway’s and Union Grill. There isn’t anything he likes about these places better than others for reading. If he likes a bar, he reads in it. He tends to order beer, and he reads in the afternoon as well as late at night. Before Pittsburgh, Rob spent 20 years reading in New York City bars. As he noted when I texted about interviewing him for this article: “It’s true. I’m one of the world’s great bar readers.”
As a respiratory therapist, Rob sometimes gets off work at 11 p.m. The late-night bar hubbub doesn’t stop him from bar reading, though. He says it’s handy because when he’s sitting at the bar he wants “to talk to somebody but not everybody.” The book itself becomes a handy barrier between long-winded small talk versus interesting conversation.
Bobby Fry, co-owner of Bar Marco and The Livermore, says he sees a changing bar and light-dining landscape in Pittsburgh. “Smaller, simpler, higher-quality restaurants serve as great places not only to read, but to meet,” he says. “They promote conversation and ideas and possibilities.”
He sees mostly women reading at his bars. “At Bar Marco, they're almost always sitting at the bar. At The Livermore it’s a combination of bar and tables. There are some men reading, but definitely more women.” Bobby himself was an avid bar reader before moving to Pittsburgh. “In New York City I read after work almost daily at several bars including Bar and Books (Midtown east), outside on Water Street at Ulysses Tavern, sitting at hotel bars like The John Dory at The Ace Hotel and Reynard at the Wythe.” He agrees that the safe space created by a bar can work to create community, can offer a kind of social comfort without having to actually be social. “Especially after work, sometimes you want to be around people but not talk to them much,” he says. “Unlike sitting at home and reading, you might want to observe the world a bit while you read and of course, have a cocktail or glass of wine and food.”
In order to entice bar readers a bit, Bobby plans to start offering newspapers during The Livermore’s daily oyster happy hour, and says he is building a Little Free Library right in the bar so people can drop off and pick up books to read — so people can be inspired to bar read. I hope it’s a trend.
Sherrie Flick is a fiction and food writer living in Pittsburgh (sherrieflick.com); reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.