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If New York is known as the city that never sleeps, D.C. might be the city that never stops reading. Despite being a place where people get paid to read endless memos, reports, policies, and bills, D.C.’s parks, cafes, Metro cars, and bars, always seem to include someone with a book in their hands. The Library of Congress and its annual National Book Festival, the DC Public Library’s 26 branches, numerous independent bookstores, and venues that regularly host star-studded author events and book talks ensure reading is ingrained in our city’s culture. In these places, book lovers come together for communal experiences around reading, so it’s no wonder that the District is home to many eclectic book clubs. From general interest spaces that exist solely for readers to gather (sometimes even in silence) to the most niche of reading groups, there is—literally—something for everyone in the local book club scene. The scene is so popular, in fact, that interest and attendance have not only remained consistent, but surged over the past couple of years.
The rise in local book club attendance can be traced back to a number of factors, including the onset of mass loneliness and isolation during the pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spent more time reading recreationally during the pandemic than ever before. Spending on recreational reading rose 22.9 percent in 2020 and another 1.8 percent in 2021, reaching $15.2 billion. As COVID-19 safety protocols were lifted and vaccines were made available, book clubs became a common starting point for socializing in person again.
Just like the city itself, D.C.’s book club scene offers ways to choose your own adventure. In January, local social media influencer, Jade Womack of ClockoutDC, created a guide of book clubs across the city. Spanning 56 options, Womack’s roundup features everything from Reading with Rory: The Gilmore Girls Canon, which will read the 339 books Rory Gilmore reads throughout Gilmore Girls, to Bipartisan, a group for people from different political backgrounds attempting to use books to find common ground across the aisle. Meanwhile, Black-owned bookstore and self-proclaimed “sanctuary for Pan-African culture” Sankofa Video Books & Cafe hosts the local chapter of the national Noname Book Club. Created by the singer and activist Noname in 2019, the club is both an online and in-person community dedicated to uplifting voices of color.
Unsurprisingly, the most popular sites for such clubs are bookstores and public libraries, spaces dedicated to and resourced for encouraging reading and building community. As Grace Burke, the manager of Eastern Market’s recently expanded Little District Books, which opened in 2022, tells City Paper, “the independent bookstore community in D.C. is really strong.” That strength is reflected in the diversity of clubs available. Each shop offers reading groups unique to their store’s specific focus and clientele. As a queer-owned, independent bookstore that celebrates LGBTQIA authors, Little District Books currently has four recurring book clubs: Queer Escapism, Seminal Works, Found Family, and Real Queer Stories. According to Burke, Queer Escapism was created to provide LGBTQIA readers a respite from living in a world full of queer trauma. The club started last year in the face of ongoing state legislative and violent attacks on queer and trans people. In that time, it has proven to be a necessary space for its participants to come together and find community. “It’s been an active move on our part to celebrate queer joy,” says Burke. After each meeting, participants often go to As You Are, the nearby queer bar, together.
More general-interest independent bookstores, such as Adams Morgan’s Lost City Books and H Street NE’s Solid State Books, host a wider range of clubs that cater to their booksellers’ interests and their clientele’s needs. Jacinta Allee, a bookseller at Lost City, hosts the wildly popular Meet Cute book club, a monthly gathering that aims to “read all the best (and diverse—everyone deserves a good love story!) tropes and romcoms,” according to the event page. Allee started the club last September because she wanted to get more involved in the neighborhood and local book community. “I’m just a girl who likes to read romances and I want to meet other people who like to read romances and who generally enjoy books,” Allee explains.
For Allee, the community formed among Meet Cute members, since it began last September, has been the most rewarding and worthwhile part of the experience. The club regularly draws 35 to 40 attendees and has a mailing list of more than 170 people.
Allee believes its success and high attendance prove how difficult it is to make friends as an adult. Book clubs, she says, are a way to do that. “Running the book club makes my presence in the bookstore, and also in D.C., feel much more solid and tangible,” says Allee. “It’s wonderful to be recognized. To be seen.”
Jack Kalil, a bookseller at Solid State who runs Books on Hands, the store’s newest book club to be conducted in American Sign Language for signers to discuss Deaf-focused literature, can relate to the pursuit of being seen and in community with others. Kalil received a degree in Deaf Studies at Gallaudet last year and began working at Solid State after graduating. Though he had no background in bookselling, Kalil is passionate about building community for Deaf and hard of hearing locals. Since he started working at the store, he’s realized Solid State’s power to promote education, community, and friendship. The shop has hosted other ASL events previously, but this is its first monthly book club conducted in ASL. Books on Hands will host its first meeting on Sunday, May 14. In preparation, the store has ordered more Deaf-authored work for patrons and book club members to check out.
“I hope the book club can be a welcoming environment for people with a range of experiences and signing abilities,” says Kalil. In Deaf culture, storytelling is a powerful tool to disseminate information, language, and lived experiences. Thus, Kalil hopes Books on Hands being conducted in ASL will help participants speak about not only the books being read but also share their own experiences and stories with each other. Traditionally, people join book clubs because they’re seeking spaces to convene and connect with others over a shared text. But it’s more than that. Queer Escapism, Meet Cute, and Books on Hands demonstrate that people are also seeking spaces to connect over shared experiences, interests, and identities, which has felt even more pressing in this COVID-altered world. So if you’re looking to find a community in the country’s loneliest city a book club might be the answer. There should be something for every reader.