Leopold’s creates a trifecta with cocktails, coffee and books

Without leaving Madison, visitors can travel the world through books with a cocktail or cup of joe in hand.
Owner Of Leopolds Sam Brown Stands In Front Of The Bar
Photo by Gaby Vinick
The owner of Leopold's Sam Brown stands in front of the bar.

Molly Fish was skeptical when Sam Brown asked her to work as a bookstore manager for Leopold’s Books Bar Caffè in early January. A bookstore, a bar and a cafe? It sounded like the ultimate trifecta, but the future was still hazy with uncertainty.

After spending hours researching various literary works, Fish realized she was having fun in the process. Soon, she was on board.

“This is a town that’s always been a little underserved by bookstores, and I felt like there was a natural play at home for us in the market,” says Brown, the owner of Leopold’s. 

Brown recalls his days in Dupont Circle studying philosophy at American University. At that time, he jokes he would skip class to spend all of his time at Kramers, a bookstore and bar with brunch cocktails and a late menu. Kramers, along with another D.C. favorite Busboys and Poets, inspired Brown to open his own bookstore-bar-cafe concept. Visitors can start the day with a strong cup of coffee, roam about different continents through books and come back at night to imbibe in a cocktail. 

“It gives you a reason to be there at every hour of the day,” he says. “I always dreamed of bringing something similar to Madison.”

On July 6, he made it a reality when he opened Leopold’s on Regent Street next to Rocky Rococo (which Brown’s family started in 1974). Leopold’s started with a list of every country in the world. It wasn’t long before Fish, on the lookout for the best books, would stock the shelves with translated literature, cookbooks, fiction, nonfiction and everything in between. Yet it is the experience of browsing itself that makes Leopold’s a standout: all of the inventory is organized by country of origin. If a book takes place in multiple places — such as Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”but the author is from one of those places, Fish will default to that location. 

Testing visitors’ curiosity, the rows of shelves are stacked with books ranging from the political to the comedic. Leopold’s sells more than 5,000 books. 

“I feel like every book is a gem. It’s all hand-curated, so that means that every book off the shelf is great,” Fish says, emphasizing that she and Brown put thought into every item on display.

Bookshelfs In Leopolds Books Bar Cafe

Books are organized by country of origin at Leopold’s Books Bar Caffè. Photo by Gaby Vinick

An avid New York Times reader, she also looks forward to finding new, trending books for Leopold’s. Fish says she not only reads about the Man Booker Prize or the Pulitzer Prize winners, but the finalists as well for some inspiration. The books jump from country to country. 

“We definitely want them to — and they do — latch on to that browse-by-country concept,” she says. Fish hopes people open their minds to new places by visiting the shop and browsing as opposed to coming in and looking for one specific book.

Leafing through the books occupies plenty of time, but the food and drinks are also worth sampling. For coffee lovers, the “shakerato,” espresso shaken on ice with demerara sugar, is a treat. To accompany a coffee, there’s a selection of baked goods such as chocolate dipped macadamia biscotti, chocolate dipped butter and amaretti cookies.

“I wanted a place that felt European, that didn’t feel like you were in Madison, or had a real urban feel to it,” Brown says. He worked with Fred Murray to design the interior. Brown’s mother helped refinish the back bar, which was salvaged from Milwaukee. She also built some of the bookcases, making it a full-circle “family project.”

Brown and Fish both say they have received an outpouring of support from the Madison community.

“I’m really excited for it to be in this neighborhood,” says Haley Traun, bar and cafe manager. She credits the friendly atmosphere and international influences — such as the Italian-imported espresso machine — for tying the place together. 

Brown says that it’s also nice to have a space where drinking does not have to be the exclusive focus. While most coffee shops close any time between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., Leopold’s opens at 10 a.m. and closes at midnight with the bar opening at 2 p.m. People can spend the entire day there, and that’s the point. The coffee is served all day so guests can grab an espresso as opposed to a cocktail.

drink on the bar

Pimm’s Cup at Leopold’s. Photo by Maija Inveiss

The bar menu is expansive with a combination of classic cocktails and Leopold’s originals (plus beer and wine). A favorite for many is the “20th century” cocktail, consisting of gin, lillet, lemon and white creme de cocoa.

Life gets busy, but for people looking to start reading again for pleasure, Leopold’s is a hidden gem where you can read and drink a cocktail or browse a book with a coffee in-hand. As Fish greets visitors, they usually are taken aback by the whole book-bar-cafe concept. They often stand there and freeze.

“I try to encourage them, ‘choose your own adventure,’” she says.

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