The Little Book Club in the Corner

One of the first and best things I did when I found myself single at age fifty was to join a book club. It was a “meet-up” of diverse women who shared very little in common other than a big love for reading books, female comradery, and the musty smell of a well-stocked bookstore. Out of thirty total members, fifteen or so would make it to the monthly meetings which were held in a tiny, privately-owned bookstore located in the corner of a small strip center and run by a kind, elderly man named Jacob. They called it, “The Little Book Club in the Corner.” I know. Original, right?

Anyway, I remember one meeting in particular where the group had selected the historical novel, “Sarah’s Key.” It was a cold, blustery evening when we gathered in the bookstore to discuss that month’s selection. We sat in a circle on plastic folding chairs, sipping hot tea provided by Jacob and munching on potluck cookies. After catching up a bit, we got down to the business of discussing the book. The leader was a professional woman in her early sixties who had never been married. She always chose a different way to initiate the conversation, and tonight she produced a large bowl filled with questions written on small strips of paper. As the bowl was passed from person to person, they would randomly pick a question, answer from their perspective, and invite two others to chime in.

The lineup that night consisted of a devout Catholic and Hispanic mother of five, a Jewish grandmother of nine, and an always tired-looking female attorney with a 9-month old baby and a 2+ hour commute each way into LA (who listened to all of our book selections on audio). Next was a shy high school senior who had just received a college acceptance as a literature major, several suburban “soccer moms,” a gay emergency room nurse and her partner, and lastly, an African-American middle school teacher married to a military officer who only expected to be here for a few more months at best. Oh, and me… a recently single, middle-aged speaker/trainer who was living alone for the very first time in her adult life.

Our little group was an intriguing tapestry of women representing vastly different age groups, ethnicities, familial structures, religions, professions, cultures, and educational levels. Because of that diversity, the conversation on any topic or any book was always rich, revealing, and sometimes raucous.

The book we were discussing was set in France during the Nazi occupation and centered on the actions of the French during that time as well as issues of forgiveness, guilt, denial, survival, and redemption. You can imagine the depth of perspective from our little group made up of Jews, Christians, and atheists… American citizens and immigrants… Mothers and childless women… those who had lived in war, worked in war and those who had only read about war… women who were alive during that time in history and those who born less than two decades ago. The ideas, questions, and opinions we kicked around were nothing short of invigorating.

As I sank into the deliciousness of the evening and began to absorb the different opinions, preferences, and attitudes about the book along with my warm herbal tea, I realized that there were plenty of reasons why this little book club should not have worked so well. It was loosely organized, held at a late hour, never had a consistent group of attendees, not to mention the differences of opinions. And then, in an instant, I realized that was exactly why it did work.

The rules were flexible. Newcomers were as welcome and valued as someone who had been a member for several years (because they never made every meeting anyway). There were plenty of other book clubs that were advertised on Jacob’s shabby, over-crowded bulletin board, many held mid-day or on a Saturday afternoon … so if this late-night version didn’t work, you were quickly directed to another option that did. No hard feelings, no room for whining or trying to change the time to fit your own personal schedule.

But by far, the biggest reason was that the leader set the tone at every meeting by demonstrating a respectful discourse and honest curiosity from the very first question, in addition to interjecting both as needed throughout the discussion. Everyone there quickly matched step with that tone, and the result was a level of conversation, examination, and contemplation that stayed with you for days, weeks, and even years.

Sadly, within a year of joining, the little book club was disbanded—partly because the bookstore closed, partly because the leader resigned to take on a new professional challenge, and partly because people simply shifted onto different paths of life, relocating, getting busy, or just experiencing a change in priorities. But I can never drive past that location without fondly remembering the role it played for me at a pivotal moment in my life and the lessons I learned from that sweet, small band of book nerds.

I think often about what made it work and how to recreate that same structure, tone, and comradery within any small team or group. They were an example to me of the critical role that solid leadership, respect, diversity, and flexibility can play in the making and molding of a great team.

This week, consider how the lessons from the Little Book Club in the Corner could help mold and shape your diverse group of players. How can you set a stronger leadership example, foster more respect and genuine curiosity, build more diversity and inclusion, and create a structure where people feel safe to express their opinions and are encouraged to explore other perspectives and ideas?

I’ve missed the Little Book Club in the Corner for over 10 years and decided it had been long enough. This past week was the first meeting of the new Wild Women Book Club which (so far) consists of myself and three dear friends who share a love for books, learning, and of course, hot tea and good wine. We live in different parts of the country and have been getting together in person for a Wild Women’s Week every year for a long time. In this wacky year of COVID and isolation, we decided to resurrect the book club idea virtually. Our first book was Untamed by Glennon Doyle. So, stay tuned because next week, I’ll bring you some lessons learned from that book as well as from the rich, raucous ideas shared by my new band of brothers, the Wild Women Virtual Book Club.

In the meantime, read a good book, sip some hot tea, and contemplate your role in creating an outstanding team with space and room for all.

“Great is the fortune of he who possesses a good bottle of wine, a good book, and a good friend.”

~ Moliere