A Different Kind of Book Club

November 18th, 2013 by Susan Johnston

From Paris to Boston, homeless book clubs are bringing hope into people’s lives.

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Compared to food and shelter, books may seem to be a comparatively low priority. But thanks to book clubs around the country, those without stable housing have the chance to start a new chapter, escaping into a book and bonding over something other than the circumstances that brought them to the streets.

The first of these clubs grew out of a friendship between attorney Peter Resnik and Rob Day, who was then a homeless veteran Resnik met in Boston Common. They started the Boston Book Club in 2008 along with Ron Tibbetts, head of the nonprofit Oasis Coalition, and watched as the concept caught on elsewhere. According to Tibbetts, there were at one point 26 similar book clubs around the world, including locations in London, Barcelona and Paris. "I never thought that it would become a kind of phenomenon," he says.

Part of the appeal to participants is the respite the club provides. "It's an hour and a half or two hours away from their situation," Tibbetts says. "I've had folks that will come and participate and they're so comfortable that they fall asleep. If you feel safe enough to sleep and you need to sleep, it's wonderful that we can provide that."

Other members come for the sense of community or the opportunity for self-expression. "Being heard is so uncommon and rare for them," Tibbetts says. "They're in a place where they can share concepts and ideas. It's an opportunity to refine how they communicate."

Like many book clubs, the Boston club has a handful of regulars who attend meetings every Tuesday morning, while others drop in or out over the years. But at Renewal Place, a two-year transitional housing program for chemically addicted women and their children, the members are more consistent from week to week due to the nature of the housing program.

Since the club started in May 2010, founder Laurie MacGillivray, a literacy professor at the University of Memphis, says it's given the women a new way to connect with their families and each other. "[When you're in rehab], the only thing you share with the other families is that you've been an addict," she explains. "This offers a whole different range of topics they can talk about that are positive."

One woman was having issues with her son, but after he read "The Hunger Games," they could talk about the book and use it to bridge the divide between them, according to MacGillivray. "Two of the women said 'we don’t like each other but when we come to book club, we see the best in each other,'" she adds.

Some members are initially hesitant or don’t feel they can contribute to the discussion. However, many have warmed up to the idea to the extent that they now picture their future homes filled with books, which MacGillivray sees as a positive sign. "Imagining reading in their future, I think, is so much about having a healthy trajectory in life," she says.

But these books clubs don't cater wholly to adults. At a family shelter in Queens, New York, Vikki C. Terrile, coordinator of young adult services at Queens Library, led a book club for preteen residents last year. Over the course of two months, participants read and discussed the fractured fairy tales in Adam Gidwitz's "In a Glass Grimmly."

While not every kid finished the book—"there's so much pent up energy, sitting and talking about books is not something they are used to doing, especially kids in temporary housing situations," Terrile admits—one kid finished it early when his school closed during Hurricane Sandy and "had the pride of saying 'I did this'," she adds. The book club culminated in a visit from the author. "They were really excited to talk about the process of how he writes, and they asked him the best questions," Terrile says.

Street Books in Portland, Ore. offers books with a different twist. Founded by artist/writer Laura Moulton in 2011, the bicycle-powered mobile library lends out books without requiring proof of address or identification. Moulton uses a bicycle attached to a Depression-era box containing 40-50 paperbacks, and houses the rest of the library in a donated storage locker. Nearly every Monday for the past two years, she has checked out books to patrons at the Right 2 Dream Too rest area in Portland's Chinatown neighborhood. Two other librarians handle shifts in other areas of Portland on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Once word spread that people could check out books without proof of address or identification, the concept took off and regular patrons even brought in new people. "I've had some incredible readers that have checked out books like crazy," Moulton says. "Just being able to have a conversation about a book and not have the conversation be about their current hard times is kind of a relief." Street Books rotates its selection based on donations and used books purchased in response to requests (there's a lot of demand for books in Spanish).

Not every paperback is returned, but to Moulton, that's just fine. "Sometimes I'll have somebody go through an epic journey to return a book," she says. "If I'm checking out books and somebody is hesitant because they're not sure they'll be able to return it I say take it anyway and pass it onto somebody who might enjoy it."

While these programs benefit those down on their luck, the organizers acknowledge that it's also shifted their own perspective. "Whenever it's possible to come together and listen to each others' stories, an enormous good can happen," Moulton says. "Some of my assumptions and stereotypes have been completely exploded."

Tibbetts echoes this sentiment. As he puts it, "Those of us who are privileged enough to have a warm, comfortable chair to sit in and read in the safety of our own homes are enlightened by the wisdom and passion of folks that are living such marginalized lives."

Susan Johnston has written for The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Parade Magazine, and TheAtlanticCities.com, among other publications. She lives in Boston.