Jeff Kamin on Books & Bars, Reading, and Why Libraries Are Better Than Netflix

Books & Bars is a twist on traditional book clubs. Open to the public and held in bars, this moderated book club show “provides a unique atmosphere for a lively discussion of interesting authors, fun people, good food and social lubrication with liquid courage.”

The Friends has been a supporting partner of Books & Bars since the Saint Paul version started in 2011.

Creator, moderator, and host Jeff Kamin tells us a bit about this almost 14-year series and why he loves it so much.

How did the idea for Books & Bars start?

I’ve always loved books, writing, and literature. I really wanted to join a book club, but actually none of the groups I talked to would have me. They said I wouldn’t like their groups because they didn’t really talk much about the books, they just drank wine.

So while I was at City Pages, I was working with an independent book store, and we decided to try a different version of the book club. We thought “let’s make it public and bring strangers together to talk about books.”

We started in the basement of the Green Mill in Uptown, and it’s grown from there. We’ve read 175 books as a group, and we’re now in both Minneapolis, soon to be back at Bryant Lake Bowl, and Saint Paul at Amsterdam Bar & Hall.

How do you choose your books?

I sit down and start a list, usually one season at a time. I ask the question, are these books “discussion-worthy?” I’m usually looking at new paperbacks – I want them to be accessible to everyone – and I really try to mix them up to appeal to both men and women, and to represent diverse authors and diverse interests. These are not “Jeff’s favorite books” that I try to push on people – I’m reading them for the first time as well. Then I let people vote on the books.

Why do you love the Books & Bars concept?

We all read the same book, but none of us read the same book. Everyone interprets things in their own way, and when they come together to talk about it – that’s what makes it interesting.

Everyone is welcome. You don’t have to read the book. You don’t even have to talk if you don’t want to, though I like see a “fresh hand” from someone who’s never spoken. You just show up and enjoy.

I really think it creates a sense of community. I’ve been doing this for over 13 years; there’s a sense of longevity. I’ve seen people leave and come back [to the series]. I’ve seen lasting friendships made. People have gotten married after meeting at Books & Bars. I’ve even officiated a wedding because of it.

What has surprised you about the series?

It’s people’s willingness to trust in a book they’ve never read or wouldn’t normally pick for themselves, because they know it will be worth it. People have sometimes told me that after our discussions they would rate a book higher because they now see it in a different way.

Why do you love reading?

You can connect with someone else whom you’ll probably never meet and who may be different than you, but with whom you have something in common because you’re reading their words. You’re an active participant in this art form. You’re creating the picture inside your head, and it’s your interpretation that gives it meaning.

Why do you love libraries?

I walk to Central [Library] a few times every week – it’s my lunchtime routine. I love that I can reserve books and videos online and pick them up right there. [The Library] is really like the new video store. Their “lucky day” section with the newest Blu-rays and books is the best. It’s better than Netflix, because I have a chance of getting the newest titles. I love it.