Latin American bookstore and cafe Epilogue adapts to pandemic

By Gabriel Lima

 Nestled between Sup Dogs and an alleyway on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill sits Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews. Outwardly unassuming, it is a picture of coziness inside with books lining the walls and covering tables. Many have notes and reviews attached, each one carefully handwritten and thoughtful. A painting of Frida Kahlo adorns one wall. Potted plants hang from the ceiling. Latin-influenced treats, such as churros and buñuelos, fill a glass display at the counter, and the air smells of coffee and chocolate. There is a welcoming aura to the place: a warmth that feels intentional, carefully curated.

Epilogue is the passion project of owner Jaime Sanchez and his wife and co-owner Miranda. The Sanchezs’ attribute their idea to the closing of The Bookshop — their favorite bookstore in Chapel Hill that closed in July 2017.

“A big part of why we moved to Chapel Hill in 2015 was because it had a bookstore downtown,” Jaime said. “[When] The Bookshop closed, we knew we couldn’t let that stand.” 

The Sanchezs’ spent long hours researching and building a plan that could survive in the competitive downtown Chapel Hill rent market. After working through many iterations, they found a business model that could sustain them, pay living wages to their employees (a critical factor, Jaime noted) and allow them to pursue their dream.

Epilogue enjoys immense support and patronage from Chapel Hill locals and UNC students alike. Jaime attributes this to a “deep understanding” from the community that art, especially books, is important. 

“The desire to keep Chapel Hill weird and full of interesting places is deep rooted in our history,” Jaime remarked. “Chapel Hill is a special place, and if you can set up a business that can connect so well with the community, then the community will respond accordingly.”

Latin American roots

Intrinsic to the charm of Epilogue is its Latin influence. Jaime and his wife have taken great pains to ensure his Mexican heritage shines through in the food and drinks.

“My favorite item on the menu is our vanilla concha,” he said. “The panaderia (bakery) back home in Tijuana that I love has a very specific way to make them.” 

An avid baker, Jaime worked hard to bring those flavors into his food. 

“When I take a bite, I am immediately transported back home to 6:00 p.m. in the panaderia, when the second run of bread is made and people buy it fresh out of the oven on their way home from work,” he said.

The selection of literature available reflects the couple’s Latin roots as well. Jaime and his wife are careful to display works by people of color and LGBTQ writers in an effort to raise visibility for these communities.

Adapting through COVID-19 pandemic

Jaime himself is a humble figure, dressed in a baker’s apron and an Epilogue-branded shirt. He is genial and witty — his love for what he does is apparent in the care he puts in. 

His favorite novel is Franz Kafka’s “The Castle.”

“Kafka may not be known for happy endings,” he laughed, aware of the juxtaposition between the often depressing subject matter and his own optimistic personality. “I appreciate the complexity of his storytelling and the ‘true to life’ feel his stories have. Life is not simple, and he mastered an artistic take on the reality of life.”

One such complexity of life for Jaime has been dealing with the pandemic. His tone shifted from light-hearted to serious as he discussed it.

“We’ve been holding up as well as one can,” he reflected. “I feel like I failed to protect our employees. I wish I could do more to keep all employees working and safe.” 

He pointed to his role as the oldest in his family as the source of his caring nature. 

“I’m kind of that person that is unofficially assigned to protect and keep an eye on the whole family.”

“We did have to make a lot of changes during COVID,” Jaime noted. “We were so successful with the core business [before the pandemic] that we’d never had to think about an online site or delivery. The pandemic had us scrambling to move everything online.”

Jaime emphasized how careful Epilogue has been to keep their employees and customers safe.

“From a safety perspective, we had to make sure the idea of ‘safe space’ was at the core of our decision making, so we ensured we were two steps behind any further reopening steps the state government allowed us to have,” he said. “We never made a decision to reopen further without staff input, and we made it our mission to provide masks and gloves to anybody that needs it.”

 Epilogue is especially important, Jaime reasoned, because it is positioned between two major bus stops, which creates a constant demand for personal protective equipment.

 “Protecting our community continues to be our moral responsibility,” he said.

Looking forward

Once Epilogue was again stable and adapting to the new normal, Jaime turned his sights back toward helping people in his community.

“Once we were set up online, I had to figure out how to further help our community of vendors and artists,” Jaime said, referring to local writers, jewelry makers, potters and the like, all of whom have been given space to promote their work within Epilogue.

 “We came up with ‘surprise boxes,’ which included goods from local vendors and books that you might have otherwise missed because they came up during a pandemic,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Jaime said he remains positive in his outlook.

“My hope for the future is to exist, to be here for alumni. I know all the students have to leave at some point and that makes me sad,” he lamented. “But such is life, right? The thought of seeing students again in 10 years, maybe sooner, and being here for them is what keeps me going.”

Edited by Elizabeth Egan and Jennifer Tran