Library cafes, once a hot business trend, are closing up in Joliet region

Once a rising trend, the cafe inside a public library has become harder to find

Sign outside the Book and Bean Cafe announces the pending closing of the popular cafe at the Joliet Public Library Black Road Branch. Dec. 2, 2023.

Joliet Public Library officials said they have not decided what to do with the Book and Bean Cafe space in the future, but the day of the library cafe appears to be fading.

The owners of the Book and Bean Cafe are retiring and will close the doors at the end of this month.

What happens next is uncertain, and it could take months for library leadership to decide as they embark on a strategic plan that will include a remodeling of the Black Road Branch, where the cafe is located.

“I think they should use it as a cafe,” said Ralph Sporck of Minooka, who was at the cafe with her “We Got Game” board game group that has met there regularly. “So many people depend on the cafe.”

The Book and Bean Cafe has had a more successful run than many library cafes. But often when a library cafe closes, the space is used for something else.

A cafe at the New Lenox Public Library closed in May 2022 and has not been replaced.

New Lenox library director Michelle Krooswyck said its unlikely that a cafe will return.

“The biggest challenge is that space is not a full-service kitchen,” Krooswyck said. “It can be difficult for a vendor to have a menu for the hit-and-miss traffic that a library brings.”

Another issue, she said, is that the library hours don’t line up for what may be the best hours for a cafe, especially one that’s focused on coffee.

he entrance to the Book and Bean Cafe has been one of the first things library patrons have seen when they enter the Joliet Public Library Black Road Branch. Dec. 2, 2023

That has been a challenge at the Book and Bean Cafe, where owner Tammy Duckworth noted that the 9 a.m. opening time for the library comes after the morning rush that feeds business into most coffee shops.

“We’re limited by our hours to the library hours,” Duckworth said.

Duckworth has run the Book and Bean Cafe since 2011, building up a track record that she and her husband Grady, co-owner of the business, take some pride in. They noted that the cafe, which opened with the library in 2002, had multiple previous owners.

They also pointed to library cafes that have closed elsewhere.

“People love the concept of it, but they don’t realize how difficult it is.”

—  Lisa Pappas, Plainfield Public Library director

“I think we built a thriving community of people who come here for various reasons,” Duckworth said. “It’s safe. It’s happy.”

“The food is amazing,” said customer Jean Cavanaugh of Lockport, another member of the game group. “It has great hospitality – a family atmosphere.”

When cafes have closed, many libraries have replaced them with vending machines.

That likely would not go over well with the Book and Bean crowd, where many of the clientele have grown close to the Duckworths.

Tammy Duckworth has run the Book and Bean Cafe at the Joliet Public Library Black Road Branch since 2011. She and her husband Grady, a co-owner in the business, are retiring. Dec. 2, 2023.

But it has worked out at the Fountaindale Public Library in Bolingbrook, where the cafe operator left in March 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and never came back.

“The folks who ran the cafe said the majority of their business came from selling soft drinks and chips,” Fountaindale Director Paul Mills said. “We’re meeting that demand with the vending machines.”

The days of the library cafe have not ended.

But the trend that looked like the wave of the future in the early 2000s, when cafes were being drawn into designs for new library buildings, has become more the exception than the rule.

“People love the concept of it, but they don’t realize how difficult it is,” Plainfield Public Library Director Lisa Pappas said.

The Plainfield library district did not include a full cafe in either of the two plans for a new building when it went to the voters in unsuccessful referendums in 2016 and 2017.

“We were looking to have a cafe space with vending machines and maybe a Keurig,” Pappas said. “In our area, there are many great coffee shops within blocks. It’s not hard to find coffee around here. If you go into the library and look at the tables, there are a lot of coffee cups.”

The White Oak Library branch in Crest Hill, built 10 years ago, is one of the newer libraries in the Joliet area. It was designed without space for a cafe.

The library does have vending machines but not fresh coffee.

“There really isn’t much of a demand for it,” Crest Hill Library Director Evangeline Stephenson said.

Stephenson said she sees people with coffee cups from the neighboring Speedway gas station.

The space for a cafe with large windows looking out from the Joliet Public Library Black Road Branch was designed into the building, which was built in 2002. Dec. 2, 2023.

The library cafe still can be found in some spots in the Chicago area.

The Wheaton Public Library in DuPage County has a cafe run by Altiro Latin Fusion, which also has a restaurant in town.

“It’s been an invaluable addition to the library,” Wheaton Library Director Betsy Adamowski said. “What it’s really doing is giving people a place to meet and collaborate. And some people enjoy studying in a noisy environment.”

Those are some of the same qualities mentioned by customers of the Book and Bean Cafe.

The biggest problem at the Wheaton cafe, Adamowski said, is that it’s not open long enough.

The hours issue can work both ways. Although the cafe operator may want to open up earlier than the library does, library management wants the cafe to keep evening hours when the library is open.

The staffing issues that developed in the restaurant business since the COVID-19 pandemic can affect library cafes, too.

“What we’re finding out it is they’re harder to staff than you think,” Adamowski said. “We need it to be open in the evening. But Altiro closes at 3 o’clock.”