Where the Book Group Meets

Our book club has been asked to move.

It isn’t the first time the book club at University Book Store in Seattle has moved. Since the club’s inception in 2003, we’ve gone from a circle of folding chairs to a conference room, and from several different restaurants in the University District to half a year of meetings at a neighborhood restaurant one block from my home. After five years of monthly meetings, I’m getting some concrete evidence that where we talk plays a huge role in how people think and interact.

In a couple weeks we’ll be having our last meeting at the Varsity Restaurant. There, at the end of each month, the book club reserves the circular, padded eight-seater banquette at the back of the restaurant. It’s been the club’s best environment so far. Dining together makes club members feel like old friends. Conversation flows naturally over food. People are willing to give up a pleasant evening at home to go out to a restaurant and treat themselves to dinner while discussing a good book they’ve just read. And when we had to pull up more chairs to the banquette, it only made the conversation warmer. People were relaxed enough to say what they really thought. Not to mention that I got to enjoy chicken-friend steak with lots of country gravy.

This is in sharp contrast to our club’s first home.

For several years the book club met in the bookstore conference room. This was located off the sales area on the second floor, past gift wrap and shipping, past five business offices and through the door at the end of the hall. It was a boardroom where we sat around a long table under fluorescent lights like grad students at a seminar. Speaking out felt like a classroom situation. No refreshments, no windows with a view, made the room claustrophobic. No matter how enjoyable book talk can be, it’s pretty tempting to stay home where it’s comfortable, rather than sit at a long corporate table in a cramped, oppressive room.

The last month only one person came. I sadly decided it was time to drop the book club. Either that, or make a change.

Painted Veil coverThe change was fortuitous. The film of The Painted Veil looked gorgeous in the previews and I’d never read the short novel by W. Somerset Maugham, and both were so excellent, each in its own way, that I organized the book club meeting around a viewing of the film, to be discussed after the show in Mamma Melina’s restaurant under the theater. What resulted was the kind of wonderful conversation that smart, sensitive people can have after a stimulating movie, but in this case, the pleasure was doubled, because we’d all read the book, too. With that, the club’s wanderlust was born.

We’ve had several larger meetings in the Continental, a long-time Greek family restaurant in the heart of the University District. We entertained three of our all-time favorite authors there: Rory Stewart, Marjane Satrapi, and Tony D’Souza. It was perfect for large groups dining together, but not as ideal for intimate, thoughtful conversation.

Which leads me to the club’s approaching move at the end of June.

We’re going to be settling into an area of the University Book Store that has a fireplace, armchairs, and an Oriental rug, within thirty feet of the Bookstore Café. You can smell the coffee. They’ve got salads, sandwiches, and bakery treats. That should work out nicely.

It’s right by the big front picture windows, which means the raunchy and sometimes outrageous life of “the Ave” will be on colorful display, but as long as I sit with my back to the window like a good boy, everyone else should be fine.

We’ll be exposed to anyone shopping nearby – the huge magazine selection is right beside us – but this could be a plus. Potential new members may notice us and think coming next month might be a good idea. We’ll have to make some kind of signage – maybe “All are welcome” in big letters, and then in smaller letters, “Participation limited to those who’ve read the book.” Or maybe just wing it as it comes, without signage. Why not? I can be graceful with anyone inappropriately joining in – you know, gently heading off someone who saw a movie once that was just like this book, but in the movie blah blah blah.

There will also be those lonely old souls who aren’t playing with a full deck, the two or three who spend their evenings haunting the bookstore and join all the bookstore events. We’ll have to welcome them, too, and still preserve our own atmosphere of friendly, reflective thinking and critical conversation.

Ultimately, the whole change of location is bound to be interesting – because, if nothing else, it will be more real-life data on how space effects a conversation about books.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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