Sidekick Coffee & Books encourages guests to unplug and connect

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Harry Potter Trivia Night

Sidekick Coffee & Books — Friday, Oct. 25 at 5 p.m.

Grand opening: Raptology presentation with eastern screech owl

Sidekick Coffee & Books — Monday, Oct. 26 at 4 p.m.

Sidekick Coffee & Books, 1310 1/2 Melrose Ave, University Heights. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Jazz plays over the speakers as an employee prepares an iced chai latte. He wears a gray tee shirt with a design in white of a boy with a book sitting with his dad, who holds a steaming cup of coffee. Under this image are the words “Sidekick Coffee & Books.”

The University Heights business feels modern, yet cozy. Dark wood with marble countertops, faux white chandeliers and sleek black lamp shades that hang from the ceiling and produce a soft orange glow all indicate the establishment, which opened Sept. 14, 2019, is new. Yet the two long green couches, which beacon customers to lounge and get lost in a story while they sip their latte, feel warm and familiar. Most strikingly, bookshelves that almost reach the ceiling are stocked with children’s and young adult books, creating the calm and literary atmosphere of a library.

A customer who just purchased a caramel latte approached the marble counter with cellphone in hand.

“What is the wi-fi?” she asked.

“We don’t have wi-fi,” responded the employee.

In an increasingly digital world, Sidekick Coffee & Books is attempting to create a tech-free sanctuary.

A customer orders at Sidekick Coffee & Books, 1310 1/2 Melrose Ave, University Heights. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Owner Katy Herbold has received mixed responses for taking that stance, which she describes as a social and business choice.

When the employees are met with bewildered looks from customers, “We say we’re encouraging conversation,” Herbold explained. “Another one I say is, ‘I’m trying to get noses off screens and into books,’ especially if they’re a parent or grandparent, they can really relate to that.”

Most coffee shops are illuminated by the glowing screens of phones and computers, as caffeinated hands pound on keyboards. This was not the business Herbold wanted to create. The relationship between the cafe and the bookshop was a key component for Herbold.

“I didn’t think either one of them could survive without the other. I thought the books needed the coffee and the coffee needed the books,” Herbold said.

This is her first time running a business; before becoming the owner of Sidekick, Herbold had been an elementary teacher in South Sioux City, Nebraska and Adel, Iowa, and an event planner.

There is no wi-fi at Sidekick Coffee & Books; guests are encourages to read, write and socialize. — Jason Smith/Little Village

“That kind of made me mold both of these together and come up with a bookshop-coffee store where I could do some event planning, but also literature and learning with children and young adults,” she said.

Herbold closed on the property — which sits at 1310 Melrose Ave in University Heights — on May 31, 2019. It is next to Maggie’s Pizza, University Heights City Hall and Herbold’s husband’s office, Herbold Law, which is convenient for their family, as they have three kids.

In the last several months, Herbold learned how to order books for a bookstore, decided on a coffee supplier, created a business plan and website, filed tax info with the state and hired staff.

Right next to the back entrance is a chalkboard advertising upcoming literary events, including storytimes and trivia nights. On Oct. 17, cellist Hannah Holman played a pop-up concert at Sidekick, and they will have Harry Potter Week at the end of October. Harry Potter Week will include Make Your Own Wand Day, a dress-up photo booth and the University of Iowa Quidditch team. In November, the shop will be partnering with Nolte Academy of Dance to bring customers a Nutcracker Tea event.

Sidekick Coffee & Books serves cafe drinks, pastries and other snacks. — Jason Smith/Little Village

“I started something, also: community nights for elementary schools, where they can sign up to do a private shopping event and have teachers read aloud during the community night. And then a percentage of the sales will go back to that school’s PTO,” Herbold said.

For the first community night on Wednesday, Nov. 6 from 5-7 p.m., she plans to focus on Borlaug Elementary, the school to which her children go, and then encourage other schools that are interested to sign up.

The demographic Herbold says she needs to work on engaging more is high school students. The shop closes at 5 p.m., so it is a challenge getting the after-school crowd that Java House draws, she said, but she might extend hours some nights for events. She has a small stage in the corner of the building, and hopes to host high school ensembles, singers or poetry-readers.

“I think it’s important for young artists to be able to share their work and have it validated in that setting,” Herbold said. “And that’s what this is for … I am just trying to provide another spot for young artists and writers and readers to shine, because I think kids need to know that it’s more than OK to be smart and to be a reader, and I want that to be reflected here.”

Fantastical signs decorate Sidekick Coffee & Books in Iowa City. — Jason Smith/Little Village

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  1. Getting people off screens is a nice thought, but the location is an AT&T dead zone. Without Wi-Fi, no one can get in contact with you if you have a family emergency. As a parent of a little one, it makes this place a no go.

    1. An idea, if this appealed to you, would be to give a few select people the cafe phone number in case of and emergency.

  2. I live on the east side of town. This cafe is not in a neighborhood that I frequent. But the concept of a tech-free zone is intriguing enough to lure me across the river for coffee, pastry and a book. I could become a “regular” in a spot like this.

  3. As a mom of teenagers I absolutely appreciate the effort to get people off of screens, however, the lack of Wi-Fi coupled with poor cellular service gives Sidekick a very big con! I thoroughly enjoyed my morning there! The coffee, scone and staff were all delightful, but upon leaving I had half a dozen important texts from my son that I missed while in Sidekick. This will unfortunately keep me from coming back.

  4. Love the place and love the wi-fi free choice. Everywhere has wi-fi. Not everywhere has customers having conversations and staff totally attuned to what’s going on.

    When we were there, people were looking at *and talking about* the books, and people were reading for fun without tabbing over or punching notifications. Other customers were actively engaging with the staff and each other and smiling at us. We felt welcome to strike up a chat if we reached for similar books.

    This is the value added that bookstores are supposed to have.

    I’m not being a luddite – I know communication devices are useful tools, and I use one – but asking for opinions about books from a person who can react to my facial expressions and recommend something better? Finding a reader who loves the same author? Getting coffee cake on my cheek and not caring because I’m actually not at work, because email can’t reach me? Actually getting away from the emergencies? It was wonderful. The store is really comfortable. Welcoming. I love it.

    If I’m not there when you need me, I’m at home, reading what I bought there. You know the number if you need to find me.

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