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Book Clubs Give People Something to Talk About

In an age of high-speed communication, Americans seek out more leisurely encounters.

Call it the right atmosphere. The crowd in the Buffalo Bisons locker room was not looking for autographs. Baseball season was over. No wet towels were on the floor or dirty uniforms on hooks.

At bat, so to speak, were the Bistro Bookers, some 80 book lovers gathered in this unlikely Buffalo, N.Y., venue of benches and battered chairs to discuss, of all things, a sports book. A hearty dinner followed in the stadium restaurant.

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Publishers and bookstore managers say thousands of book discussion groups - most smaller than the Bistro Bookers - are springing up all over the United States. Turning off beepers, cell phones, laptops, and TVs, people are joining groups with real, live people for stimulating discussions about books.

"There is a lot of stress and information overload out there," says Mickey Pearlman, author of "What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers" (HarperCollins). "I think people want to slow down and have old-fashioned conversation. There are many thousands of groups now, and more on the Net."

Unlike more traditional meeting places for groups in homes, libraries, and community centers, a restaurant is almost always the venue for the Bistro Bookers. They attract crowds as high as 300 with talks by a lively book reviewer followed by discussion and dinner. Result? Memorable evenings.

As most discussion groups are small and informal, and not connected to any established tracking system, a reliable national figure doesn't exist. But bookstores and publishers are feeding the tide with discounts, books on book groups, and support for starting and continuing groups.

Ms. Pearlman traces the presence of book-discussion groups in the US back to 1813 in Charlestown, Mass., when a group of women decided to gather together and read nonfiction. In the late 1870s, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle promoted popular reading groups in small American towns.

Today, publishers point to Oprah Winfrey's book discussions on TV as a key influence on the current increase of book groups.

"Her book discussions definitely triggered something," says Kim Russello, community-relations manager for Barnes & Noble in Framingham, Mass. "Book groups have been around forever, but she helped the latest wave of people wanting to talk about books. After she discusses a book, the phones start ringing here."

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For Donna Paz, publisher of "Reading Group Choices: Selections for Lively Discussions" (Paz Associates, Nashville, Tenn.) behind the groups is a simple impetus: "I think people are hungry for people contact," she says.

In Denver, the number of discussion groups connected with the Tattered Cover bookstore has risen from 125 a few years ago to 350 today. In Pasadena, Calif., at Vroman's Bookstore, reading groups focus on science fiction, mysteries, philosophy, science, and women writers. A mystery book club near Seattle switches from discussions in homes and goes camping one night a year to discuss a book around a campfire.

Other groups include a "Match Making Evening" in a Knoxville, Tenn., bookstore, and mother-daughter book groups in several cities.

Salon, the popular, eclectic site on the Internet, has created a sort of campfire for book discussions with "Table Talk," where the book forum attracts some 2,000 people a day to engage in 136 online discussions. "Every two weeks we have authors like Erica Jong, Garrison Keillor, and Joyce Carol Oates come in to discuss classic books," says Bonnie Hamilton, a spokeswoman for Salon in San Francisco.

Alexander Hayes, Salon's circulation manager, says he enjoys both face-to-face book groups and online discussions. "Often the problem with face-to-face groups is that they can easily digress into just personal chat," he says. "Online you can stay as focused as you want."

But the contact with people, all coming together in a familiar setting, with a discussion led by a moderator, is what many groups enjoy and the key structure that keeps people coming back. In Kenmore, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo, about 20 women have been meeting at the North Area YWCA for nearly 15 years at a cost of $2 a meeting.

"They have a wonderful time," says Connie Downing, program director for the North Area. "It's not just the enjoyment of literature, but the fact that many of the women are widowed and have become great companions for each other."

The Bistro Bookers started in Buffalo in 1990 when Ann Angelo, a marketing specialist, helped create the "reading and eating" concept that has proved so successful. "Ann wanted to attract the active business people before they hopped in their cars and went to the suburbs," says Michael Mahaney, assistant deputy director for community relations of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

What happened, as the meetings grew in popularity, was the reverse. "We are getting a large audience from the suburbs," says Mr. Mahaney, "and even from other counties."

Proving that the idea may have universal appeal, Ms. Angelo's niece adapted the Bistro Bookers for schoolchildren and renamed the group "Cookies 'n' Books."

Pearlman has no doubt the numbers of reading groups will continue to grow. "My book club has been together for about eight years," she says. "It lasts because it becomes a kind of a family."

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