Publishers, booksellers, and other booklovers have all mixed books with adult beverages at one time or another. One Twin Cities entrepreneur, however, has brewed a potent concoction with the tagline, “Reinventing the Book Club – as a Show,” that’s creating a sustained buzz. Books & Bars, which entered its 10th year this month, is a monthly public book club during which anywhere between 12-200+ participants -- 60%-65% female/35%-40% male (depending upon the book being discussed), many of them in that elusive 20-40-year-old age range -- eat, drink, and talk about books for 90 minutes while moderator, Jeff Kamin, 42, who performed improv comedy in Los Angeles clubs for four years before moving to Minnesota in 2001, both leads the discussion and entertains the crowd. It’s a heady mixture of intelligent conversation, juicy author and book gossip, and clever witticisms.
“It’s a great concept and an incredibly fun way to get people reading and talking about books,” says Cathy Schornstein, a HarperCollins sales rep whose territory includes the Twin Cities. Schornstein, like others PW spoke to, attributes the success of Books & Bars somewhat to the area’s vibrant literary culture, but much more so to its moderator’s expertise. Kamin is, explains Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Booksellers Association, “a charismatic host who never misses a beat, making the events fun even if you haven’t finished the book.”
Four years ago, authors were added to the Books & Bars mix. Sometimes, authors chat with participants via Skype; these days, however, more and more authors come in person. Recent author visits include Amor Towles (Rules of Civility) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things), who each drew more than 200 booklovers. Magers & Quinn Booksellers, a Minneapolis independent which has co-sponsored Books & Bars since 2005, was unable to provide numbers for the books they sold before and during these two particular events, but did disclose that they typically sell 15-20 books at Books & Bars events. They also accept for buy-back previous selections, with credit given to purchase current selections. Currently, meetings to discuss each month’s selection are held at three venues around the Twin Cities: The School II Bistro & Wine Bar in suburban Chanhassen; the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis; and the Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul.Two of the three venues and Magers & Quinn pay Kamin a fee to produce Books & Bars. A tip jar at each event also encourages audience contributions.
“I wish there was a Books & Bars program in every city in the country,” Towles told PW, “[It] has successfully brought the organized reading trend to a younger generation, by making it a little more open, nocturnal, and irreverent.” Strayed recalled, “It was packed. I signed books for more than an hour. The atmosphere is lively and fun. [Kamin] strikes a wonderful balance between seriousness and laughter. I’d do it again!”
Originally launched in February, 2004 by Bound to be Read Books, a St. Paul independent bookstore that closed its doors in 2005, Books & Bars was resuscitated by Kamin after a three-month interval. There are certain rules regarding book selections, done in consultation with his audiences, Kamin explains. “The book has to be discussion-worthy. That’s the one I don’t want to ever break.”
Other requirements (which have been ignored at one time or another over the course of almost a decade selecting, to date, 125 books) include the book being available in paper format, and not selecting more than one title by an author. Selections are 80% literary fiction and 20% nonfiction, most of them critically-acclaimed bestsellers from the large houses, such as March’s selection, The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Once in a while, a classic is selected, like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or a midlist title from a small press, such as Graywolf Press’ Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott.
Speculating on why Books & Bars is so more successful than other groups mixing books and libations, Kamin explains that books are selected that appeal to both men and women, and he doesn’t allow participants to get sidetracked. “We talk about the book, we talk about the author, and we have some laughs,” he notes, “We keep it moving. Even if you haven’t read the book, it should be worth your time.”