More than just Words
The Culture of Lake Country Book Clubs

WRITTEN BY LAUREL M. HALL | PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARGARET STOKMAN

There’s something truly magical, after a hard day’s work, when you open up the pages of a book and start diving in. Even more so, then, to share some of that magic with others in a like-minded group. Book clubs allow readers to consider their reading more closely, with others’ added insight. As Marcie Stokman of Well-Read Mom says of the reading experience: “It’s such a uniting thing, because you recognize through literature that our hearts are all the same.”

Well-Read Mom: From Crosby to the World

Well-Read Mom’s journey began with what felt to Marcie Stokman like a misstep: she was giving talks to young mothers in the Brainerd Lakes Area, asking them what they were reading, and finding out that no one, including herself, seemed to be reading quality literature. “I felt bad because I felt like I was heaping a burden on the women: here’s one more way you’re failing as a mom. Women have enough of that: we already are keenly aware of all that we have to do, between working and managing a home.” A call from her daughter Beth, a new mother, only cemented the idea to use her experience as an educator to bring classic literature back into women’s lives. “Beth said, ‘Isn’t there a place where women get together and talk about the real questions of life?’” Stokman decided to start with a group of her friends and help her daughter form a group in the Twin Cities. She knew that bringing women together was an essential part of the formula. “The accountability of a book club gives us permission to allow ourselves to read.” Soon she had women from around the state and beyond asking if they could form their own groups and use Stokman’s book lists and audio introductions to guide their discussions. Stokman was surprised by how quickly the interest grew: the first Well-Read Mom Conference had around 100 attendees, and affiliated groups now number in the hundreds worldwide.

Marcie Stockman is the founder of Well-Read Mom, an international movement encouraging women to study literature together.
(Photo by Josie Vouk)

Well-Read Mom produces a yearly Reading Companion (a guide to the readings plus bonus content), which is still printed and mailed. “I’m all about keeping reading alive in print,” she said. “If you can read the book in print you can feel it, the physicality of the book. You can get a book for ten or fifteen dollars, but if you can write in it and make it your own, your comprehension will go way up. I feel like it’s an investment in my education to use a book that way.”

Books Burgers & Brews: An Invitation to Return to Reading

Sheila DeChantal had been President of the Friends of the Brainerd Public Library for several years when she was inspired to start a different kind of book club, drawing in a different sort of reader. “I was hopeful that Books Burgers and Brews would attract nonreaders and what I like to refer to as dormant readers. Dormant readers, by my definition, are people who at one time loved reading, perhaps when they were younger and had more time and then life happened.” She started by going to Prairie Bay in Baxter and proposing a partnership between the Friends of the Library and the restaurant. DeChantal had originally proposed “Books and Brews,” until it was suggested that “Burgers” be added to the mix, and themed dishes be included as part of the Monday night experience. Since then (COVID-19 notwithstanding), attendees enjoy drink and food specials tied into that evening’s book discussion theme. The first book discussed, in October 2016, was The Martian by Andy Weir, and potatoes played a prominent role in that evening’s menu, as they do in
the book.

The Friends of the Library supports the book’s accessibility by purchasing twenty-five paperback copies each month through an independent bookstore. DeChantal emphasized that “having the books easy to access at no cost to those wanting to join is crucial.” She said in the end it all comes back to the books and their ability to affect readers. “We want people to fall in love with books, we want people to stretch their minds and genre choices, and the library is the way to do that.” 

Beagle and Wolf Books & Bindery: Read Local

At Beagle and Wolf in Park Rapids, creating a community of readers is part of their mission: “This is the heart of an indie bookstore,” said Sally Wizik Wills, who owns the store with her husband, Bob. They currently support four separate book clubs: “Beagle Men’s Group, Beagle Women’s Group, Sister Wolf Group, and a Current Issues group which we sponsor jointly with the local League of Women Voters.” 

The Sister Wolf group is in its twenty-first year; it started well before merging Sister Wolf and Beagle Books & Bindery. Wizik Wills says that “The Sister Wolf group has a reputation for picking good books, and people come in specifically for that group’s list—often well before the books are chosen!” They primarily read literary fiction, though recent titles have also included Meredith May’s memoir The Honey Bus and Minnesota native Margi Preus’s World War II novel Village of Scoundrels. Wizik Wills said that they often also try to bring something special to the meetings: “We try to give the groups an experience with authors—in person, Skype, or Zoom. Those books are often the ones groups are most enthusiastic about.”

Ask Someone You Know or Start Your Own

If you prefer to stick with the tried-and-true independent book club, there are plenty of ways to do it. Retired librarian Linda McIntosh joined a group of women primarily from the Pine River and Pequot Lakes area in 1993 when a co-worker invited her. The key to the group’s longevity was their common interest in focusing on the books: “We read fairly complex, challenging books and actually spend most of the meeting time talking books,” she said. “The discussions we have add so much to the book. People have experiences pertinent to the book that add a lot. The best discussions are when people disagree about the book. If everyone loves the book, there is less to discuss.” 

McIntosh pointed out that they made accessing the book easier by having most of their book selections come from the local library’s “Book Club in a Bag” collection: ten copies of a book and a discussion guide to help the conversation. Most public libraries in Minnesota now have collections like this available to check out.

The best part of a book club, according to McIntosh? The community. “We only see each other once a month but feel very connected. If a member is having problems, we are very supportive,” she said. 

The first Well-Read Mom conference had around 100 attendees.

Join an open book club:

Books Burgers & Brewswineandwordsandfriends.com/books-burgers-and-brews

Beagle & Wolf Books and Binderybeagleandwolf.com/bookgroups.html

Well-Read Mom wellreadmom.com

Books for great discussion:

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

A Cold Dish by Craig Johnson