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Books & Coffee has a problem most stores would like: a customer surge

20 june 2011, 16:45
0

Martha Peake’s Books & Coffee is bursting at the seams these days.

The American-style bookstore and coffee shop near the corner of Kenesary and Valikhanov Streets in Astana has become so popular with expats and locals that on weekends you have to scramble for a café seat.

And customers are snapping up the homemade baked goods so quickly that Martha had to add a second baker.

On a recent day she walked around the café section with samples of a new menu item. “Try this lemon cake,” she urged customers. They did – and it was yummy.

Books & Coffee attracts pulls in customers by offering services you won’t see in any other store in Kazakhstan. Patrons can buy new books or use the store’s library to check out works that have been around for awhile. Some books are in English, some Russian, some Kazakh.

Books & Coffee also offers American cakes, pies and cookies, and to wash them down, coffees, teas and European specialties such as café oulai and cappuccino. Then there are the English lessons, most taught by native speakers.  

Many customers think the main reason the store has become an Astana institution is not the eclectic services it offers but Martha herself. She reaches out with friendliness and kindness to everyone who drops in.

And she enjoys introducing customers to each other as a way of facilitating friendships.  “I like to meet new people and see that they’re meeting other people here,” she said.

When a customer is having a bad day, and wants to talk about it, Martha listens, taking time from a busy work schedule.

That kind of caring has led to her becoming not just appreciated but loved.   

Customers also like Books & Coffee’s unique business model. It’s a non-profit organization, so money left over at the end of the year goes to orphanages, centers for disabled children and other charities.

Martha dreamed for years of opening a combination bookstore and coffee shop before arriving in Astana in 2003. 

She opened her first store in 2005 with eight bookshelves in a two-room apartment where English classes also were taught.

Over the years “we got more books, added more English classes, added a movie night, added discussion groups (in English)” and other activities, Martha said.

After renting three progressively larger facilities, she bought the store’s current location on the ground floor of an apartment building.

It’s just off Kenesary Street near Valikhanov, so it’s not hard to find. You first need to locate a fast-food place on Kenesary. There is an alley next to it. When you turn into the alley, you’ll be able to see the Books & Coffee sign.

In Kazakh fashion, patrons must don slippers at the front door if they want to sift through the new books or look through the library shelves. Those going directly to the café section need not take off their shoes.

Martha, who graduated from Pennsylvania’s York Academy of Art, came to Kazakhstan in 1995 from the Washington, D.C., area. She gave up a job creating and restoring stained-glass windows in churches, restaurants and other structures to teach English at the Kazakh-Turkish University in Turar Riskulov.

Two years later she and expat friends started an English center in the village of 15,000.

For its first five years her Astana store lacked a coffee shop.

But “I love the Barnes & Noble model” of a combination bookstore and cafe, she said. So in 2010 she opened a coffee section.

Books & Coffee’s customer base has grown so much the past few months that I asked Martha if she plans a fourth version of the store.

That’s an inevitability, she said. But because of the work required to move thousands of books, the shelving for them, the café equipment and the café furniture, “I don’t even want to think about right now,” she said.

That will be fine for those who love the current homey venue.

The fact that the café section can get crowded isn’t a downside, regular customers say. It simply means there are more interesting people to meet.


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