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Nestled in a crook of the Petworth Citizen, silent readers once gathered. Sitting with books in their laps, readers would stay perfectly still until a hotel bell pierced the silence. As if lifted from a trance, they would shut their books and conversation would commence, following an hour of independent reading time.
While it may seem odd to the naked eye, these D.C. bibliophiles were members of a club known the world over, with chapters in cities like Bangalore, São Paulo, and Johannesburg. The concept, revolutionary in its simplicity, is Silent Book Club or, as it’s affectionately referred to: “Introvert Happy Hour.”
The concept is simple—free from the shackles of stuffy nonfiction or Russian classics, participants bring whatever reading material they desire and then regale others with literary recommendations once the hour of silent reading time is up. No shelf-righteousness permitted.
The D.C. chapter started in earnest during the summer of 2019, soon growing from four attendees to 32 at its peak, with members spanning the District’s professional gamut, including teachers, lawyers, and government employees. Then the pandemic struck and readers dispersed, forced out of common spaces and into isolation. “I was thinking, We’ll be back in a couple months max,” Erin Sells, founder and coordinator of the D.C. chapter, says. “I didn’t think we would not see each other for 18 months.”
But now, the D.C. chapter has made its triumphant return, after a gloomy year and a half of solitude. And that sense of side-by-side camaraderie and connection has never been more vital.
“Even for the most introverted among us, even for people who often would rather spend more time with books than with human beings, there is something really important that happens when people come together,” Sells, whose day job is director of institutional giving for NPR, says. “Even if they’re just sitting to read silently.”
Public health experts agree, urging individuals to find ways to unwind and connect with community as year two of the pandemic stretches on. While the physical dangers of the coronavirus may finally be receding, more variants seem to be on the horizon and doctors caution that a mental health crisis looms, pointing to skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety since COVID-19 took hold in 2020.
Leo F. Flanagan Jr., a psychologist and trauma expert, heartily endorsed activities such as Silent Book Club as a way to start socializing again and ease back into society. “We’re social people—that’s essential for us and for our well-being,” Flanagan says. “We have to get back to whatever the new way of socializing will be,” he adds.
For months though, communal reading time wasn’t an option for D.C. residents.
Back in March of 2020, the global Silent Book Club team saw the writing on the wall. With more than 20 chapters spanning Italy from top to boot, impending shutdowns were rolled out across the country—hinting at what was about to happen in the United States. The team, led by co-founder Guinevere de la Mare, began preparing the various chapters to take heed of public health measures and the likely cancellation of future meetings.
“We had an early view into what eventually happened here,” says de la Mare, who created Silent Book Club back in 2012 after grumbling with a friend about a book club’s assigned reading. She now oversees 295 clubs in 41 countries. “Even having that two-week head start gave us a little bit of an indicator that really big changes were coming,” she says. “Of course, none of us knew how long it was going to last or what we were in for.”
About half of the chapters worldwide went on indefinite hiatus, while others opted for some form of virtual offering. Locally, Sells was adamant from the beginning that she did not want to move the club online.
“I just didn’t see how it would work, or how it would be very much fun,” Sells says. “Part of that was probably just the way I was living my life at the time,” Sells says. “I worked online, I worked out online, I went to doctors appointments online, and I saw my family online, and there was just no break from it. So it was really hard for me to imagine having a Zoom Silent Book Club that would feel like the fun that it was when we were in person.”
While members were disappointed, they largely concurred.
“The last thing I wanted to do was sit on Zoom for an hour with people,” Anne Standley, Sells’ former colleague at NPR and a founding D.C. chapter member, says. “That just didn’t seem fun to me.”
From there, the months crept on, with no end in sight. A number of other chapters started back up over the past few months, but each was operating case-by-case based on their regions’ public health situations. Since the start of the pandemic, 57 chapters have shut down permanently, according to de la Mare, whereas 48 new ones were created.
More than anything, Sells wanted to bring back meetings, but fear of turning a hallowed meeting ground into a super-spreader event held her back each time. “Every month that we postponed, my heart broke a little bit,” she says. “But it was a very pragmatic decision. It wasn’t worth risking anyone’s health to bring us all back together.”
Finally, summer of 2021 rolled around. As mask mandates were lifted and the White House kicked off Fourth of July declaring independence from the virus, it seemed like in-person gatherings were officially back.
At the same time, book sales were continuing to explode, lending new meaning and purpose to literary meetups.
Between the summer of 2020’s racial reckoning, which took the literary world by storm and ignited interest in books on race and pop-up author talks, and the general boost to at-home reading time during the height of the pandemic, reading habits have changed dramatically.
“People are reading, still, at an amazing pace,” says Ramunda Young, owner of the Black book-focused Mahogany Books in Anacostia and National Harbor.
From May, following the murder of George Floyd, to October of 2020, Young shipped more than 100,000 books across the country. At author talks and virtual book events, people tuned in by the hundreds, eager for a platform to discuss what they were reading and convene with the community. “They were looking to have an outlet to discuss things that may have been on their mind, on their heart, [or] had them confused,” Young says.
And yet D.C.’s Silent Book Club remained shuttered. Then the Delta variant complicated reopening plans. Biding her time, Sells cautiously plotted for a fall relaunch.
But first she needed a new location because the Petworth Citizen closed for good last year (unrelated to the pandemic).
She set out with Standley to canvas different locations, finally settling on Sonny’s Pizza in Parkview. Standley calls it “the Goldilocks fit,” for its spacious outdoor seating, fans and heaters, public transit accessibility, ADA compliance, affordable prices, absence of televisions, and relative lack of happy hour din.
Sonny’s Pizza immediately agreed, charmed by the concept. “Normally, you have to be really close to somebody to be able to just sit on your couch and chill with them, but these were people who maybe don’t know each other that well, and now they have an environment where they feel comfortable just relaxing and hanging out,” Sonny’s General Manager Lauren Reed says. “I think that’s really special.”
The group plans to meet at Sonny’s on the last Wednesday of the month from 6 to 8 p.m. They’ll aim to stay outdoors, even through the winter months, thanks to Sonny’s ample outdoor heating setup.
“We’re really thrilled to see chapters emerge again after this hibernation,” de la Mare says. “It’s like all these little cocoons are cracking open again.”
With reopening, however, comes new public health considerations—factors Sells never “considered in the before-times.” Vaccines will be required for members, though she’s decided not to check cards at the door and to instead rely on the honor system for attendance.
Seven people turned out to the October relaunch, though the D.C. Silent Book Club Facebook page has more than 300 members. More are sure to start trickling in as word of the return spreads.
It’s likely that the concept will only become more popular, de la Mare suspects, as the need for human connection and an escape from the despair of the 24-hour news cycle remains an ever-present force, going into a third year of the pandemic with the Delta variant and others retaining COVID’s grip on the nation.
“Being able to turn off for, even if it’s just for a half hour, taking that time out of your day when you’re not doom-scrolling, and you’re not getting inundated by headlines and you’re just losing yourself in a book but surrounded by a support system of other people who are sharing in that same moment with you—it makes you feel less alone,” she says. “It makes you feel more hopeful, and it gives you a very welcome escape from the incredible turmoil and darkness and state of hopelessness and disconnection.”
Sells says that the D.C. contingent is especially happy to be back. The Capitol insurrection and perennial election cycles provided a localized need to block out the dread. Now, after a turbulent 20 months of solitude, D.C. readers can finally unwind again with a slice of pizza, a cocktail and, most importantly, a book.
“It felt a little bit more special, for both the people who had been before and for the new people, because one of the things that a lot of us learned during the pandemic was how important and precious being able to come together even with people you don’t know terribly well, even with strangers, can be,” Sells says of October’s event.
“There was a sense that we weren’t going to be taking even something as simple as being able to read together at a restaurant for granted.”