Amy Brent could be called a pied piper for young readers. For the past decade, she has drawn children from all over the world into a community of book lovers, centered at Brent's booming mail-order business, the Stuart Brent Children's Book Club, in Winnetka, Ill., a Chicago suburb.
The club currently has more than 1,300 members, ranging in age from newborns to age 63, with 95% of the members under 18. Most members live in the United States, but some are in England, Japan, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Canada, Bermuda, Israel and Spain. Membership is free, although members (or their parents) must pay the retail price of each selection sent them, as well as shipping costs.
The fundamental premise of the book club is to cater to each member's individual reading preferences. Each new member of the club responds to a questionnaire asking about age, reading ability and interests; the questionnaire is periodically updated. Then Brent sends a gift-wrapped, hardcover book that she has specifically selected for that particular person. Besides the book, the package includes a postage-paid reply card, so that readers can provide a review of and feedback about that selection. Members also receive the Book Club Gazette, a newsletter that includes book information, reviews by club members and even member profiles.
"My goal is to get people reading," Brent said. "So we make all sorts of arrangements for all sorts of people." This philosophy extends to the number of books sent out. Members choose how many books a month they want; most receive one book each month, though several ask for as many as seven books per month and others receive as few as one book per quarter.
Brent is adamant that the club does not do mass mailings.She said that she has read 95% of the books she selects and knows enough about the other 5% to decide that they are worth passing on to her charges. She considers any well-written book a potential club selection, from classics like The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame to newer hits like Dragonology by Ernest Drake.
While the Stuart Brent Children's Book Club was founded in 1968 by Brent's parents, legendary Chicago booksellers Stuart and Hope Brent, their daughter made the club into what it is today. "It was a tiny part of their bookstore [Stuart Brent Books], kind of a lark," she recalled. "It was a concept they didn't do a lot with, but they did it for years. I started running the book club out of my house in 1994. It started off with 15 members—all of whom are members to this day. It kept on growing, and I eventually got an office, and hired an assistant and a book wrapper."
For Brent, the club is no longer a hobby—"it's a business. But you can't imagine how rewarding it is, how much fun, to get these kids interested in reading."