Jane Estes thinks of her kids when she considers the importance of a small bookstore like Lark & Owl Booksellers — the homey bookshop and bistro that she and nine business partners, all women, opened this spring in Georgetown.
She remembers the midnight release parties that a since-shuttered local shop, the Hill Country Bookstore, would host when "Harry Potter" novels came out. Other businesses along the Georgetown Square would stay open late, too, serving butterbeer and testing fans with a Sorting Hat. Estes would take her kids, then very young, in a wagon she’d pull home afterward, when they had fallen asleep.
"It was the most magical thing. One of my most favorite memories with my kids that we did," she said.
There may not be "Harry Potter" release parties for Lark & Owl to throw, but Estes hopes the bookstore can fill a void that Hill Country Bookstore left in the fast-growing college town seven years ago.
It’s likely to offer much more: Lark & Owl doubles as a bistro and bar serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and a full range of alcoholic beverages. The team behind downtown Austin’s Wright Bros. Brew & Brew and Better Half Coffee & Cocktails runs the bistro side. There isn’t anything quite like this combo concept in Georgetown — or the Austin area at large — which is why Estes thinks it has caught on so quickly with its customer base.
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Regulars come from as far as South Austin, she said. Lark & Owl hosts author signings, trivia nights, children’s activities, happy hours and business meetings, among other events. A row of knitters recently came in for breakfast one morning, sipping coffee while looping their needles through yarn. On another day, one of Estes’ managers thinks they observed a first date.
"This is the perfect blend of your community bookstore, your favorite bar and then just a yummy place to go have a snack or lunch or dinner. People come here all the time for so many different reasons," Estes said.
The bistro side didn’t get up and running officially until earlier this fall, but now head chef James Reedy is refining an opening menu that has "light and seasonal foods, not entirely farm to table but as close as we can get to that in a small space," Better Half co-founder Matt Wright said.
"We are used to working in small spaces, making healthy, fresh stuff, and also having a little chef’s touch on it," he said.
Current highlights on Reedy’s menu (which also features dishes from Better Half’s head chef, Rich Reimbolt) include crispy broccoli tots, a tofu Reuben and chana masala Frito pie. Several items are vegan, vegetarian-friendly or gluten-free.
Wright decided spearheading the Lark & Owl bistro was a good fit for his team — which includes his brother, Grady, and other business partner, Matthew Bolick — after realizing Estes and her co-founders’ vision sounded a lot like the Better Half program. In addition to the all-day fare, both have a wide beverage menu of beer, wine, cocktails and nonalcoholic options like coffee.
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Restaurants serving cocktails aren’t as common in Georgetown as they are in Austin, Wright said. He was intrigued about filling that corner of the market, but he also wanted to keep the mixed drinks simple and straightforward, with three to four ingredients each. Cocktails like a winter sangria and the Up-Beet (tequila, mezcal and maple-beet shrub) are batched ahead of time and put on draft.
Beer at Lark & Owl primarily is from local purveyors, such as Southern Heights Brewing and Pinthouse Pizza. With the range of craft options, the Lark & Owl bistro "is like a miniature Brew & Brew, but with only 14 taps," Wright said.
The bistro runs along the left side of the airy Lark & Owl store — a long bar on one end, a cozy seating area featuring turquoise-hued booths adorned with multicolored buttons on the other.
Of course, the bulk of the bright space is taken up by books, about 10,000 in total over a range of genres. The offerings are carefully curated, and the team listens to reader suggestions. Estes said the poetry section in particular was expanded because of demand.
Once a month, Lark & Owl hosts book club meetings that you might say are among the most special of happenings there — in part because of the role a couple of these clubs played in the store’s founding. About five years ago, Estes and her friends found themselves too busy raising kids to meet for a couple of book clubs. When she’d run into those friends at places like H-E-B and Target, however, it was clear they still wanted to talk about books they loved.
Through the Writers’ League of Texas, she had connections with several local authors and asked them to hold BookPeople-style events (albeit with wine and dessert) at private homes in Georgetown. The gatherings quickly grew in size. After the success of one event featuring half a dozen children’s book authors — on a cold December night that Estes worried would keep people away — a lightbulb went off in her head: "We are the people we’ve been waiting for."
She reached out to several of her friends to help open Lark & Owl. One of the 10 founders, Mari Ramirez, is a certified public accountant (Wright’s own accountant, in fact, and the reason he heard about the project). Kelly McClennahan is an attorney, Kristin Rountree a marketing director. Together, all of them were able to apply their skills to the creation of the bookstore.
But things didn’t start coming together until Rusty Winkstern, the owner of Georgetown’s popular Monument Cafe, called Estes. The Monument Market next door to the restaurant just off the square was closing — did she want the space for her bookstore?
"That just changed the whole project," she said. "It could be bigger and have a diversified revenue stream, and we could have more than a walk-up coffee bar as we’d originally planned."
On one side of the building is an outdoor patio, partially shaded by foliage swooping horizontally across the top like a leafy roof. The garden’s additional seating and space means Lark & Owl can host larger events, such as a monthly makers’ market.
Estes is hoping holiday shopping will make December a big month for the bookstore, which opened in late April.
"We're hoping it'll be like South by Southwest all month because of the holidays," she said. "On the bookstore side, it's a chance for people to realize the potential that they can shop, eat, take the kids all in one place. On the bistro side, it’s the first opportunity for some people to see the whole menu. This could be a model for what people want to do — the ability to have a cocktail while they read a book in a community space."