When Alex Ruiz selected Rainbow Rowell’s gay young adult romance Carry On for the LGBTQ book club at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville, N.C., he expected a lighthearted discussion. Instead, he says, “there was a tremendous sadness” from attendees in their 70s who told him, “I could never have imagined this kind of book when I was a kid.” A book like Carry On would have been banned, they said, or decried in their church. There was wistfulness for them in reading a novel where “no one experiences anything resembling discrimination for being queer.”
Ruiz, 30, a community member who ran the club for three years, says he “didn’t even realize how affecting that would be.” He made sure that participants could fully express themselves, so “if someone didn’t like a book, they were free to say so.”
PW spoke with staffers and organizers at half a dozen LGBTQ book clubs at indie bookstores across the U.S., who say that fostering a safe space is part of what makes such clubs so necessary. That holds true even during the Covid-19 outbreak, when the need for social distancing has led some stores to switch to hosting virtual book clubs.
Reaching all readers
Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis hosts the Twin Cities 30+ Queer Book Club and a nonbinary book club, which owner Angela Schwesnedl says are natural extensions of the shop’s incorporation of books by queer, nonbinary, and trans authors in their other clubs, such as romance. “It reflects who our community is and who our customers are,” Schwesnedl says. “It would feel really weird to me if we didn’t have something that met those demands.”
Community members run both clubs, and both, when this article was reported in February, were on the verge of outgrowing the store’s upstairs meeting area. All book club picks are discounted 20%, and they consistently sell well, Schwesnedl notes. “People like to be part of that larger conversation whether or not they actually attend.”
Libby Vasey, bookseller and donation coordinator at Columbus, Ohio’s Prologue Bookshop, says she started the store’s Reading Rainbows and LGBTQ+ Allies book clubs because she’d attended book groups where she felt she “couldn’t be fully truthful” about herself.
Vasey, who identifies as aromantic and asexual, says part of what’s made Prologue’s clubs successful is that they are #OwnVoices both in the titles selected and by virtue of her involvement. “You can’t have someone who’s not part of the LGBTQ+ community running an LGBTQ+ book club, because there won’t be any authenticity,” she says. Another factor: many of the participants are drawn to an LGBTQ space not centered on alcohol.
Both clubs read the same books, and Vasey calls the varying approaches “fascinating.” In the Allies group, which also has many LGBTQ members, “whenever LGBTQ+-specific topics come up, things that the allies maybe haven’t thought of before, we’ll see them fall silent, which in a way is a good thing, because they’re letting the LGBTQ+ folks tell their truths. There’s a reverence going on, like, ‘I’m in your space, I should listen to you.’ ”
E.R. Anderson, executive director at Charis Circle, which runs Decatur, Ga.’s Charis Books and More, says the shop’s ATL LGBTQ+ book club focuses less on political theory and more on fun books, chosen by members, though all of its book clubs “end up being pretty queer.” Run by a community member, the club usually has about 30 attendees across the spectrum of race and gender, typically ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, a group that, he says, often doubles as a dating pool.
Bookmarks, a nonprofit bookstore in Winston-Salem, N.C., started its LGBTQ book club in 2018 in partnership with Pride Winston-Salem; meetings usually draw 10–15 attendees. Operations director Jamie Rogers Southern says older titles—Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood—have been among the most popular, as has Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, for which Bookmarks partnered with a local theater company doing a production of the stage adaptation. The club deliberately steers away from academic topics in favor of more narrative books, to draw in newcomers.
While some clubs have had consistent success, others have struggled to find regular attendees, especially those trying to appeal to teenagers. Candace Robinson, a bookseller at Vintage Books in Vancouver, Wash., paused the shop’s teen LGBTQ book club while she does outreach to local schools, therapists, and a children’s home society. Robinson says teens are wary of attending a meeting alone but might be more interested if they knew their peers were attending.
Similarly, Mariana Calderon, store manager at Denver’s Second Star to the Right, started a YA book club, Not-So-Straight on ’Til Morning, in 2018 after the store moved to a location near a high school. “I’m a queer person of color and have found that YA books are at the forefront of doing this sort of important representation,” Calderon says. But despite having a designated Instagram account for the club and choosing new releases that are “as diverse as possible,” she has only had minimal attendance, though she’s hoping to boost that with the help of the store’s YA advisory board. “You can’t tell teens what to do and you can’t tell people that this is a safe space; they have to experience that before they trust it,” she adds. “As of now, my dormant book club is completely ready to go when people start coming.”
Smaller discussions have proven worthwhile for Vintage Books’ LGBTQ adult book club, which started in January and so far has read classics like Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. Both have sold well, though the club meetings drew only a handful of attendees. Robinson says she makes sure that nobody feels pressured to speak. “That’s important; not everybody’s comfortable talking, but they want to participate.”
Malaprop’s and Prologue have had success with author appearances at club meetings. Malaprop’s had a standing-room-only crowd when local transgender author Tina Madison White appeared with her wife to discuss her 2015 memoir Between Shadow and Sun. “That level of community engagement created a really poignant discussion,” Ruiz says.
When Saeed Jones, who lives in Columbus, visited Prologue in December, Vasey mentioned that both her store’s clubs would be reading his 2019 memoir How We Fight for Our Lives. He asked if he could attend, a request Vasey called a “bookseller’s dream.” The event drew 24 attendees, who were “extremely excited and starstruck.” Still, Vasey doesn’t plan to make such appearances a regular happening, lest they compete with other author events and disrupt the more intimate feel of the book clubs.
From personal to political
Vasey has shied away from classics, assuming people have already read them, favoring lesser-known titles such as the memoir Nîtisânak by indigenous Canadian author Lindsay Nixon. She looks for “voices that are often silenced because they’re different from the more popular LGBTQ voices out there.”
When the Malaprop’s club read Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased, which explores conversion therapy, the group discussed the differences between the book and film versions, as well as current events. “We absolutely talked about Mike Pence,” Ruiz says. “We discussed his history with it and the parts of the Trump administration that continue to espouse that practice, and how terrifying that is.”
At Charis Books and More, Anderson says, part of the book club’s role is to steer readers toward trusted titles. The feminist bookstore’s approval means attendees “know that we won’t let them choose a book that’s horribly misogynistic or racist. Having that vetting is another level of appeal for our group.”
Anderson believes the more narrowly focused a book club is, the better it will do. “People want to be offered niche content because otherwise there’s not really a reason to leave their houses,” he says. “They can get Oprah’s or Reese Witherspoon’s book picks; there are a million Instagram influencers who are telling them what to read. So the reason they’re coming out is to be with people who are like them in some way.”
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a freelance writer specializing in books and culture.
BOOKSTORE LGBTQ BOOK CLUBS AND THE CORONAVIRUS
★ With in-person gatherings on hold, Second Star to the Right in Denver is using Google Meet for its YA book club. Manager Mariana Calderon says the store has had “a good response to the virtual option.”
★ At Prologue Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio, some of the book club members are immunocompromised, says bookseller Libby Vasey, and the groups will be using Zoom for the duration of the pandemic. Vasey has swapped several upcoming selections for “happier books” because, she says, “I think we all need a pick-me-up at this time.”