Friday, September 4, 2009

The Competing Philosophies of Book Clubs--Please 'em or Make 'em Sweat

When I was still planning to open Boswell Book Company, there were some programs I expected to work, and some I was concerned about. I have to admit I expected a bigger response to our storytimes than we've gotten. Though our customers seemed enthusiastic in theory, attendance has been spotty. No wonder at least one of our Schwartz stores stopped doing them. I haven't given up and the booksellers and I are going to revisit them and try to figure out how to make them better.

My initial attempt at an in-store book club also was a bit stop-start. Two of the clubs, Readers of the Lost Art, and In-Store Mystery, both came over from Shorewood pretty much without a hitch. Readers of the Lost Art, by the way, was the original in-store book club for Websters in the 80's, so in a sense, it just found its way home.

The club I started, alternately known as "In-store Fiction" or "In-Store Lit" (yes, I may rename it), had a shakey start. For the first few meetings, I had one attendee, and not the same attendee each month at that. I just told myself it needs time to find its bearings, and that I would give it a year.

I asked the knowledgeable Carla Coen at Washington's Politics and Prose (yes, I'm name dropping) what I should do. She was concerned that my selections were a bit outside the sweet spot, a little difficult to attract the most possible attendeees. My thought was that Readers of the Lost Art was hitting that sweet spot, and because they vote on their selections, I could do something different and impose them.

I know it's a little "enlightened despot", but honestly, if I have to spend time reading books that are not upcoming events or advanced reading copies that I'm supposed to get behind, the selection had better be something on my pile. Better than that, it should be a book that I'd find a little difficult, a little outside my comfort zone, so that I can get all my questions answered.

Then one month ago, for Netherland, we jumped from 3 to 12 attendees (I don't count myself). Almost too much! This month, for Man Gone Down, we had 7, which seemed just perfect.
Some folks liked the book, others did not. Everybody spoke, and had something to add to the conversation. Nancy was conversant in W.E.B. DuBois and Ralph Ellison, and pointed out the structural and thematic similarities to the book. Suzanne noticed a possible plot twist regarding the all-important golf game that the rest of us missed--I'm not sure if that was the author's intent, but it was interesting. Gloria had some interesting personal experiences that dovetailed with the story. Carolyn spotted some themes that had shown in the last three books we've read. And all of us took a crack at figuring out the allusions to The Odyssey.

All in all, this was just what a book club is supposed to be, because I think that even the folks who didn't like the book found the discussion enlightening. And it didn't even take a year to get there.

Our Upcoming Meetings:
Monday, October 5th
Driftless, by David Rhodes (he's appearing at the store on the 11th of October).

Monday, November 2nd
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (she's not coming).

Since all the other book clubs we host are on Monday, it's my hope to have one of my booksellers start up a 2nd Monday book club, so that we are pretty much "Book Club Monday." I'm thinking speculative.... We'll let you know how things go.

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