This year, the American Booksellers Association is partnering with Well-Read Black Girl (WRBG) founder Glory Edim to bring book club meetings to independent bookstores nationwide with the goal of amplifying diverse voices and supporting emerging writers of color.
Book Soup in West Hollywood, California, hosted its first book club meeting on Sunday, June 9. Tameka Blackshir, the store’s WRBG book club ambassador, told Bookselling This Week how excited she is to host the club at her store. She and her former store manager both follow Edim on social media, and when the ABA partnership was announced, they sent each other a direct message on Instagram at the same time.
“We were on the same page,” Blackshir said, noting that they both already had goals to diversify Book Soup’s offerings. “Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood is a hotspot that we’re in the middle of and we have the opportunity to affect some sort of change because we’re a pretty well-known bookstore.”
For the store’s first meeting, Blackshir said, she and attendees discussed Edim’s Well-Read Black Girl (Ballantine), an anthology with contributions from Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, and Tayari Jones, among other prominent women writers of color.
This month’s meeting coincided with the 2019 LA Pride Parade, Blackshir said, and drew five attendees, but many more in the community have reached out and expressed interest via the meeting’s RSVP link. The meeting’s smaller size facilitated a strong discussion, she noted, adding that they spoke for about an hour and 20 minutes; the group discussed not only the book, but the club itself and their expectations for it.
The meeting’s smaller size also helped to ease her nerves, Blackshir said, as this was her first time facilitating a book club. “I let them discuss which essays touched them the most as far as where they could relate to things that the author was saying, which ones they enjoyed the least, and how this book impacted them,” she said.
Many book club members noted that the WRBG anthology is one that they will continue to revisit in the future, Blackshir noted, because it contains many authors and stories that they hadn’t heard of before reading. One member in particular noted an essay on Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. After reading the essay, Blackshir said, the member was inspired to put that book on their list to read.
“[The meeting] was more of a discussion on discovery and how important it is to be reminded of what inclusion does for youth and for culture, and what we deem important works,” Blackshir said. “This is something that keeps us questioning ourselves and figuring out what those biases are and addressing them.”
Attendees were also given a brief survey, Blackshir said, which asked them what they wanted to get out of the book club experience, what they would add to the meetings to enhance the discussion, and if they’d like to share their social media handles so they could be tagged in posts about the book club. She said she received good feedback from the survey, noting that one attendee recommended asking everyone to bring a question to pose to the group, an idea that Blackshir had herself.
In addition to helping to create the community, Blackshir said, tagging attendees on social media also helps Book Soup to market the event. “If we tag those people,” she added, “they’re more likely to then share it with friends and pique their interest.”
What’s helped her make the WRBG book club a reality, Blackshir said, is the team at Book Soup, which has offered her every resource available to market and support the club. Said Blackshir, “The success of the club isn’t just a success for ABA, Glory, and Well-Read Black Girl, but it’s also a success for Book Soup and what our team is capable of.”
Blackshir added that independent bookstores participating in WRBG should try to offer their store ambassadors similar support. “Support the team that is taking it on,” she said, “and offer them all of the resources that they possibly can because it’s daunting if you’ve never done anything like that before.”
Moving forward, Blackshir said she’s most excited for the learning opportunity this book club will provide. “I’m always interested in other people’s cultural experience, especially amongst the black community, and how they differ from my own,” she said, “because society wants you to believe that everybody’s cultural experiences are exactly the same. I know that to not be true, but it’s something that I constantly have to remind myself because I have society telling me the opposite.”
“In conversation and in discussion about different books that we’ll read as one, we’ll all come to different conclusions because of our different vantage points,” she added. “I think that’s extremely interesting. It stretches me and helps me to be a more empathetic person. I think it’s amazing to be able to get so many different experiences from one book, so I’m excited for that conversation.”
Booksellers are invited to sign on to serve as ambassadors and host Well-Read Black Girl book clubs in their stores throughout the year. Email WRBG@bookweb.org to sign up to host a book club or to share ideas; be sure to include your name, store name, city, and state.