June 26, 2022

Books & Bars puts a spin on book clubs

Publishers, booksellers and other book lovers have all mixed books with adult beverages at one time or another. The One Twin Cities entrepreneur, however, has concocted a potent concoction with the tagline “Reinventing the Book Club – as a Show”, which is creating sustained buzz. Books & Bars, which entered its 10th year this month, is a monthly public book club where between 12 and 200+ attendees — 60% to 65% women / 35% to 40% men (depending on the book being discussed), many of them in that elusive 20-40 age bracket – eat, drink and talk about books for 90 minutes while the moderator, Jeff Kamin, 42, who performed improv comedy in Los Angeles clubs for four years before moving to Minnesota in 2001, both leading the discussion and entertaining crowds. It’s a heady mix of clever 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 representative whose territory includes the Twin Cities. Schornstein, like others TP spoke, attributes the success of Books & Bars somewhat to the region’s vibrant literary culture, but much more to the expertise of its moderator. Kamin is, says Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Booksellers Association, “a charismatic host who never misses a beat, making events fun even if you haven’t finished the book.”

Four years ago, authors were added to the Books & Bars mix. Sometimes the authors chat with the participants via Skype; these days, however, more and more authors are coming in person. Recent author visits include Amor Towles (Civility rules) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild and little beautiful things), each of which attracted more than 200 bibliophiles. Magers & Quinn Booksellers, a Minneapolis independent that 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 revealed that they usually sold 15 to 20 books at Books. & Event Bars. They also agree to redeem 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 the suburb of Chanhassen; the Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis; and the Amsterdam bar in St. Paul. Two of the three sites and Magers & Quinn pay Kamin a fee to produce books and bars. A tip jar at each event also encourages contributions from the public.

“I wish there was a book and bar program in every city in the country,” Towles said. PT, “[It] managed to bring the organized reading trend to a younger generation, making it a bit more open, nocturnal and irreverent. Strayed recalled, “It was packed. I signed books for over an hour. The atmosphere is lively and fun. [Kamin] strikes a wonderful balance between seriousness and laughter. I would do it again!”

Originally launched in February 2004 by Bound to be Read Books, an independent St. Paul bookstore that closed in 2005, Books & Bars was resurrected by Kamin after a three-month hiatus. There are certain rules regarding book selections, made in consultation with its audience, Kamin explains. “The book must be worthy of discussion. It’s the one I never want to break.

Other requirements (which have been ignored at one point or another in nearly a decade of selecting, to date, 125 books) include that the book be available in hard copy and select no more than 125 books. one title per author. Selections are 80% literary fiction and 20% non-fiction, with most being critically acclaimed bestsellers from major houses, such as the March selection, The round house by Louise Erdrich. Occasionally a classic is selected, such as Kill a mockingbird by Harper Lee, or a mid-headline from a small press, such as Graywolf Press’ Adderall Diary by Stephen Elliot.

Speculating on why Books & Bars is more successful than other bands mixing books and libations, Kamin explains that the books are selected to appeal to both men and women, and he doesn’t allow attendees to get distracted. “We talk about the book, we talk about the author, and we have a few laughs,” he notes, “We keep it going. Even if you haven’t read the book, it should be worth your time.