They come for coffee, for books, and most of all for conversation and connection.
This week’s title is Down By the Riverside, by Jackie Lynn. One member shares that the book resonated for him because he’s been living in a tent by a creek. This is the Turning Pages book club, and most of the members are homeless or in transition.
The book club was started in 2009 by a volunteer who saw a television story about a similar club in Boston, and it’s met at Main Library every Tuesday since. Some of the members have been coming for years, a few have left and returned, and the club always welcomes newcomers. Harold has been a member for seven years. He shares, “I’ve always been a reader, it’s like self-medication for me. I can lose myself in reading, transcend the situation I’m in. For me, the library is a sanctuary. I need a group like this and a place like this.”
Today, Turning Pages is led by volunteer Evelyn Hanneman, who begins with an update on a member who’s been battling cancer. She’s found stable housing, and her latest scan was cancer-free. The group cheers the good news, and settles in to discuss the book. Like most book clubs, the conversation meanders. One member notes that the book’s main character is bi-racial, yet the author is white. A discussion ensues about whether a writer can authentically capture the experience of a different race. Or whether a housed person can understand the perspective of someone who is unhoused.
The group is surprisingly candid about personal experiences, discussing the difficulty of navigating seemingly endless red tape without a car, an address, or a computer, and how essential and sometimes lifesaving Library resources are. They come from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, and represent different ethnicities, but they share experience and a love of reading. They offer each other suggestions, transportation, job leads, and emotional support. And they laugh, celebrate birthdays and successes, and socialize. Last month, they read and discussed Hidden Figures, and then watched the film together.
“The members of Turning Pages develop friendships that continue outside the Library,” says Jonita Edmonds, a Library Manager who oversaw the group for several years. “It started as primarily a group for homeless participants, but it has morphed into so much more. Members have found jobs, homes, and stayed engaged with the club. The regulars really look out for each other and help one another.”
Scott, the member who lives in a tent by the creek, also attends a writer’s group at the Library. He reads many of the books more than once, and treasures his time with Turning Pages. “I love the books, but I really come for the camaraderie. I’ve found empathy and compassion at the Library, and in the time I’ve been involved they’ve been my backbone. This is my extended family.”
Turning Pages is currently funded through a combination of Library program money and private donations, and the organizers stretch every dollar to provide snacks and enough copies of each book. Over the club’s history, various restaurants have provided food for the club, and publishers have donated books.