The Booksmith Says Swap This Book

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Praveen Madan of San Francisco's The Booksmith often brainstorms and writes about how indie bookstores can find new ways to "bring people together to talk about books and ideas." One idea that has caught on is Bookswap, an event that's gotten notice everywhere from the New York Times to book blogs.

The Booksmith's Bookswap works this way: The store closes early and turns into "a private party space," Madan said on The Huffington Post. Everyone brings a book to trade. An extensive selection of food (hummus, chicken skewers, olives, etc.) and beer, wine, and lemonade is offered. Attendees split into groups of five to six people, eat, and chat about their books for 20 to 30 minutes, at which point they are rotated to a new table with new people. Post-discussion, a "white elephant" style swap ensues, which means that one book can be continually swapped and then "stolen" by someone else who swaps for the same book. Booksellers help lead discussions at the table and provide prompts if there are conversational lulls.

Each Bookswap is capped at 30 people, and The Booksmith charges $25 per person. Everyone leaves with a book. Participants have the option of leaving their contact information on a Booksmith bookmark in the book they brought to the event. Everyone also receives a 20 percent discount coupon, which must be used within two weeks. The Booksmith's Bookswap has run five times and sold out each time.

"Given the small size, selling out is not too difficult," said Madan. "What has been more surprising is how much fun people have at these events. We have many people coming back again and again for the Bookswaps. Many have participated three or four times."

Madan noted on The Huffington Post that Bookswap conversation tends to cover a lot of literary ground. "Over the course of the night, you might talk about the brilliance and tragedy of David Foster Wallace and the best sex scenes in literature at one table, and engage in a nostalgic reminiscence of Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, and other favorite childhood authors or have a lively talk about which science writers can make a literary minded person laugh or swoon (we heard Mary Roach and Rachel Carson) at the next."

The idea for the event came from Booksmith customers, Madan told BTW. A common complaint of "literary minded young people" was there weren't enough places to meet. "It was a classic case of an unmet need, and we decided to design an event to cater to these folks. Our goal was to create a fun event in which people enjoy talking about books to each other and making new friends." Madan plans on offering variations on the theme, and has been approached by publishers to host similar events for their customers and authors.

A perk of the innovative event has been great press. It was featured in the New York Times' Bay Area blog as one of four things to do in San Francisco. In a post on the literary blog Conversational Reading, writer Scott Esposito, who helped host a recent Bookswap, said, "You have a lot of people together bursting to tell one another about a book they loved, and then branching in conversations about great books from there." He noted that the crowd was more diverse than he expected, "as were the ranges of literary tastes and ideas," and that many people bought a book to then give away at the swap.

"We would love it if other independent bookstores copy the idea and make it their own," Madan said. "The whole point here is to create open source innovation in independent bookselling." --Karen Schechner