When it comes to thawing the Seattle Freeze, I can say without a doubt that nothing has created more meaningful connection for me in my neighborhood that my book club.
I think the four big reasons why this is true are that a neighborhood book club offers: Proximity, Affinity, Frequency and Purpose. I’ll unpack those in reverse order.
First: PURPOSE. A book club provides a reason to gather together and a focus for your conversation. It’s not random cocktail party chit-chat, but rather I find that discussing a book is a great launching pad for deeper personal discussion around world views, values, and current events. It’s common to discuss how the characters relate or don’t relate to ‘what’s going on’ in your own life. It’s that kind of conversation, I think, where friendship begins to be born.
Second: FREQUENCY. Because everyone needs time to read the book, most book clubs meet about once a month. With busy schedules – work, commuting, kids’ activities, extended family commitments, faith and volunteer involvements – a once a month time commitment is usually not too much to be burdensome for anyone, but also provides a regularity to your group’s time together. It’s on the calendar.
Third: AFFINITY. I find that people coming together to participate in a book club have inherent affinity on a number of levels. First, if you start a club in your neighborhood, there is usually inherent life-stage and socio-economic affinity within your community. Regardless of having newborns or college kids, regardless of age, regardless of working or not working, I find that there is a shared understanding of life experience and goals that brought most people to want to live in my neighborhood. You too? Second, you’re meeting with others who want to share the same activity: reading and discussing literature.
Fourth: PROXIMITY. A neighborhood book club does not require getting into your car and adding another long commute to your day. Everyone lives within walking distance. I think this increases participation as it removes yet one more barrier or hurdle to get people there. Also, because of proximity, I find that as my club members live near me, I’m more likely to see them outside of book club for coffee, walks, dinner, etc.
They live nearby. They get me. They are accessible. They want to connect. Ta da: the recipe for friendship is born.
Here’s how mine got started:
On a February evening 7 years ago I was laughing it up and eating it up – literally – with a dinner club I had started. Apparently, we were having such a good time that I – literally – didn’t hear the knock or doorbell at my front door that evening. But, as my guests were leaving, my husband noticed a note that was left tucked in the door handle.
The note was from a neighbor I had talked to a couple of times but didn’t yet know very well. She was starting a book club and stopped by to see if I might be interested in participating. She left her name and phone number on the note and asked me to call. And call I did.
The timing of that knock serendipitously intersected with a burgeoning need in my own life that was calling out for increased adult conversation and friendship. After 20 years of working, I was blessed with a beautiful baby boy, but I was finding the ‘stay-at-home’ scenario to be a difficult adjustment. It was a little too much alone time for my mental health. I had just joined a neighborhood Bunko club, just started a dinner club and was looking for more ways to connect with my neighbors.
When a knock on the door changes everything
My neighbor, Wendy, had moved to the Seattle area from Chicago in 2002. After her own dance with the Seattle Freeze she went back to work full-time when her youngest was in first grade. She had made a New Year’s resolution to get to know more people in her neighborhood because while she liked the people she worked with, as she put it “I worked in the city but lived in the burbs and working moms just don’t go out a lot after work” making it a little challenging to make social connections.
She had never been in a book club before. She was invited to one but the club members lived all over Puget Sound and she wasn’t excited about driving all over the place to get to meetings following a day of commuting to and from work. So, she put some thought to starting her own.
“I generally don’t like starting things, but I was kind of at a point where I needed to,” Wendy shared with me recently. “I started doing a little research online about what makes a good book club. I decided I didn’t like the idea of having a lot of rules and parameters around the group because I didn’t want people to feel like they had to jump through a lot of hoops to participate. I definitely wanted people to WANT to participate, but I’d heard about groups that REQUIRE that you read and finish the book or you can’t come, or you HAVE to host one month out of the year, and other stuff. I didn’t like that because I didn’t want the “price of entry” to be too high so that people up front didn’t feel like they could fulfill the obligation.”
To get started, Wendy had met one neighbor, Sosie, at a neighborhood BBQ. As they began talking they discovered they were both transplants from out of the area. They began talking about the idea of a book club. Together, they began reaching out to neighbors.
“I threw a pretty wide net,” Wendy said. “I pretty much went around and started asking people who I had met briefly over the past couple of years. Then my neighbor, Sosie, knew a few people to ask, then my next door neighbor, Sherry, knew of a few people to ask, and the list built from there.
“It wasn’t in any way an ‘exclusive’ list. I had actually asked a lot of people who turned me down for one reason or another. They were either not interested specifically in a book club, or had too many commitments already or they were already in a club.”
When doing her research, most experts and enthusiasts would say that there was definitely a ‘sweet spot’ of the right number of people to make a good group. Too few and you don’t get a good conversation, too many and you get factions breaking off for too many side conversations. Ideal is about 8-10. So, she kept asking until she got a critical mass.
Suffice it to say, I am so grateful that Wendy knocked on my door. I joined the book club and over the past seven years the women in that group have been one of the greatest gifts to my life. We’ve not only shared literature, but collectively have traveled together through work stress, parenting stress, divorce, caring for aging parents and a myriad of other life issues. Their support and friendship has made all the difference in my life.
And then, the reboot
Well, after we had been meeting for a few years, our group went through a season that saw three people move out-of-state and three people “opt out” for other time constraint reasons. This left us with a pretty small group. It became discouraging. We almost ‘called it a day’ thinking that maybe the group had run its course. But as we really did want to continue, we decided to cast the net once again.
We used a holiday Christmas party to invite neighbors who might be interested in joining the book club. At the party, I put together gift bags for each attendee that included the book we were planning to do for January (got ‘em real cheap/used on Amazon) and a personal note/invitation to try out the group for just that month to see if it might be something they’d be interested in. From that, three new people joined. We now have eight very consistent and very engaged members with a couple more who are able to occasionally ‘pop in’ every so often.
How about a neighborhood book club for you?
The holiday season is coming and people LIKE being out and about for parties. Throw one! Invite your neighbors and give them a personal invitation and a book to see if they might want to try out a book club in January. Be honest and let them know you’d like to get to know them better and you’re thinking a book club might be a good way to do that.
Next week I’ll share a little more detail as to the mechanics of how we organize our club, but think about how you’d like to organize your group. Clubs can be for men only, women only, or you could even do a couple’s book club. Why not a date night book club? Maybe you want to have dinner together, maybe just snacks, maybe just wine. It’s your club. Do what you want.
Seize the day. Cast a wide net. See who else might be looking for deeper connection in your community. Don’t wait for the invitation. Extend it. You just never know who might be waiting for YOU to knock on their door….