Lit Match: When Book Browsing Meets Speed Dating
On a Friday night in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, a 43-year-old freelance writer tiptoes into the Booksmith bookstore, clutching a well-worn copy of Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors.
Her goal: meet a fellow book lover who might become a lover in real life.
The event: Booksmith's Bookswap, a popular bi-monthly event for lit-minded singles.
Promising "cozy conversation, an open bar and unlimited food, discounts on books for swappers," and potential love connections for the $25 ticket price, Bookswap sells out each time it takes place. The small bookstore is transformed into a cozy nightclub atmosphere with a bar, a table for snacks and narrow aisles between shelves for chitchat.
For the freelance writer, this is a maiden voyage into literary singles events, which are popping up with increasing regularity around the country -- usually at public libraries. Although she is nervous, she also is philosophical. "Online dating has not found me the man who is going to know magical realism from memoir, so I figure I might as well give this a try!" she says. "The deck is stacked in favor of this since books are important to anyone who goes."
Each Bookswap has a theme, and this one is "The Great American Family." The featured guest is author Peter Orner, whose new novel, Love and Shame and Love, revolves around four generations of one Chicago family.
Women far outnumber men at the event, and many conversations seem convivial rather than flirtatious. "But it was wonderful," the freelance writer enthuses later, "...like being at a book club but with strangers!" [She asks that her name be withheld because she doesn't want her recently ex-boyfriend to know she attended the event.]
"It's a great way to meet new people without resorting to meeting them in a bar," says Amy Stephenson, events coordinator at Booksmith. "It feels intimate but safe."
As for demographics, Stephenson says they are "all over the map. We had a couple teenagers and someone in their 80s!"
San Francisco's Bookswap is counter to what many public libraries do with their singles events, which often are a literary variation of speed dating. At a typical speed dating event, libraries tend to separate singles by age groups: 20 to 35, 40 and up. More often than not, organizers of library events ask people to bring a book that either means a lot to them or says a lot about them. Having never done one of these events myself, I think it would be hard to be overly attracted to a man toting a Richard North Patterson novel, but then again, some men might object to my Jane Austen. I guess the book you carry can become something of a Rorschach test to the opposite sex.
Literary dating follows the time-tested idea that it's far easier to meet someone who shares your passions if you meet while pursuing them. It lags behind the curve of other same-interest groups such as Sierra Club Singles, which has been popular for more than a decade, and "auxiliaries" for arts groups, such as the opera and ballet, which frequently hold mixers for unmarried supporters. There are social events for "green singles" and "conscious singles" committed to personal growth and evolution. Not to mention singles' nights for baseball fans in San Francisco and elsewhere. So why not special events for bookish singles? It makes sense -- and for libraries and bookstores, it's a good marketing tool to bring in patrons.
In the past year, the cities of Brooklyn, N.Y., Denver, Tulsa, Okla., Fort Collins, Colo., Sacramento, Chattanooga, Tenn., Omaha, Neb., and Arlington, Va., have hosted literary speed-dating events. San Francisco Public Library events have sold out.
This month's Bookswap is packed, as well -- further proving the need for such events to bring book lovers together. At the evening's conclusion, the freelance writer pronounces it "fun -- I'll definitely do it again." As to whether she made a love connection, that remains to be seen. Once the bookstore event was over, she and a few others retired to a bar on Haight Street for cocktails, and some numbers were exchanged. She hopes one fellow in particular gives her a call -- one who shared her love of Augusten Burroughs.
"I figure that means he shares both my love of books and my sense of humor," she says. "And that's half the battle!"
Lit Match: A Few Pointers
1. Bookswap. If you live in the Bay Area, the next Bookswap in San Francisco is March 2.
2. Book Events. If there are no lit-minded singles events in your area, find a bookstore that offers author readings and attend an event that interests you. There is nothing like a literary event to bring out book lovers!
3. Online Connections. Single Book Lovers is a lit-minded dating site, though it is somewhat sparsely populated.