The Help Desk: The inedible journey

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

My local bookstore is great, except for one thing: the attached café is terrible. I fantasize about buying a new book and demolishing a few chapters over a nice sandwich and a cup of coffee. I’ve tried it there a few times, but their food is unexceptional and their coffee tastes like it was filtered through someone’s underwear. The service is pretty bad, too. And don’t even get me started on the soup!

Yelp is for assholes, but I really think this would be the perfect bookstore if the meals it served were halfway edible. How can I improve the quality of food?

Jay, [Neighborhood Redacted by Request]

Dear Jay,

You live in a city that has developed a taste for the ridiculous – how am I supposed to know yours is any good? If you've ever compared the rich flavor of a roasted beet to eating out Mother Earth, if your table salt costs more per gram than viable eggs harvested from a healthy young white woman, if you've ever uttered the phrase, "I long to participate in a California grunion run," I cannot and will not help you.

But let us assume you are a reasonable person – the kind of person who can't quit Fritos Honey BBQ Flavor Twists because of their ass-pounding umami flavor. Assuming this, and knowing that independent booksellers are some of the most intelligent, reasonable, and open-minded people currently eating out Mother Earth, here is what I suggest you do: start small, with coffee.

Get coffee at your local bookstore on a regular basis, be friendly and tip well. Tipping well is the key – I'm talking very well, like 100 percent for each cup of coffee. Solicit friends and fellow book lovers to also do this. After a few visits, when you have established that you are friendly and generous, leave an extra big tip – like $20 – and write on the receipt something along the lines of "I love this bookstore and cafe, but the coffee tastes like TKTKTK. Maybe it's time for a change?" And don't just say "it tastes like shit," be polite but specific in your critique – it is weak, it is cold, it has strong notes of underwear. Encourage your friends to do the same.

The next time you go in, make small talk with the barista. Ask if the manager is open to changing things up in the cafe – like the coffee, for instance. Perhaps even nicely ask to talk to the manager face to face (I know technology has made the act of expressing a desire while maintaining sustained eye contact with another human being feel like an old-timey hobby instead of a healthy communication tactic, but it's worth a try).

You are incredibly lucky to have a local bookstore in your area. As I'm sure you know, they are not the stuff of get-rich-quick schemes, they are laborious acts of love. Once the managers/owners understand that you're a loyal customer and ally – as are the other people they're hearing from – I'd expect them to be open to change.