While Hollywood starlets were busy rehearsing their Oscar acceptance speeches, an enterprising group of East Bay book lovers hosted their own gala event, The Bookies. The event was sponsored jointly by the Lafayette Bookstore in Lafayette, Calif., which serves nearly 125 book clubs, and Project Second Chance, a local adult literacy program. The first annual Bookies Book Club Awards Dinner honored titles that area book clubs had voted best in various categories.

The awards were presented at an elegant benefit dinner attended by more than 150 avid readers at the Lafayette Park Hotel on March 15. And while Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible (HarperPerennial) won the book club Book of the Year, Anita Diamant's The Red Tent (Picador) ran a close second. Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel (Penguin) took the nonfiction vote, while Reverend Price, from the Poisonwood Bible, won the "Character You Loved to Hate" category.

Special guest author Sandra Benitez delivered a moving reading from her latest book, The Weight of All Things (Hyperion), her account of life and revolution in her native El Salvador. Benitez's books, especially Bitter Grounds (Picador USA), have been perennial book club favorites.

While the connection between voracious readers and a literacy program may seem unusual at first, Susan Lynn of Project Second Chance told PW, "We began reaching out to book groups for help early on. We thought the people who most appreciate the pleasure of reading would realize how valuable a skill it is and would be the most willing to reach out to those who can't read. We were right. Book groups have given us great support." Several thousand dollars were raised at the Bookies to support the program, including the donation of a percentage of award-night book sales from the Lafayette Bookstore.

Book Club Specialty Store The Lafayette Bookstore calls itself "a book club specialty store," and, with nearly 125 book groups ordering books through them, it is a nexus of book club activism.

When Dave Simpson purchased the general interest store three years ago he noted that several book clubs used it as a source. The store, which originally opened in 1965, is among the affluent East Bay area's oldest independents and a familiar choice among local readers. A multigenerational staff of booksellers, a large children's department and a changing selection of staff picks all contribute to the store's success.

However, Simpson credits the store's 20% sales growth in the last two years to his decision to provide extra service to his book club business. "Last year we decided it would be helpful to collect the names and e-mail addresses of book groups and members so that we could help them stay informed about group choices and author appearances as well as offer them a 20% book club discount," Simpson told PW. "We were shocked to find that there were over 120 book groups that use our store. And with each group having five to 10 members, we quickly compiled a list of 700 registered members—all potential regular customers. It's getting so book clubs from surrounding communities are hearing about us and coming to us."

In addition to book club discounts and e-mail news, the Lafayette Bookstore offers informal book club forums, in which the store's booksellers offer their picks and recommendations for titles that might appeal to various groups.

Booksellers in other locales might benefit from the example. The trick, according to Simpson, is understanding that the clubs are primarily social, not literary ventures. "Often the best book club book is not necessarily the 'best book' but the most provocative. The more one can do to increase the social aspect of the clubs—forums, signings or author breakfasts—the better."