Spare time is a luxury, isn’t it? You have to work from 8am to 5pm, swing by the grocery store on the way home, walk the dog, cook up some Hamburger Helper, spend some quality time with your one-and-only, help your old man with his iPhone, again, shovel the driveway or mow the lawn—depending on the what kind of October it’s going to be—and, somehow, you have to find a few minutes to catch up with your monthly book club’s current selection.
But let’s be honest, all you really want to do is stretch out in your favorite chair, turn on Wheel and finally get around to trying that new IPA your buddy recommended. The one so hoppy it’ll make your tongue jump. The six-pack has been sitting in the fridge all week, just waiting. Taunting you. Drink me.
Jeff Kamin, host and moderator of Books & Bars, is here to solve all of your problems. Or a couple of them anyway. His popular open-house book club, which started in 2004, meets the first three Tuesdays of every month, rotating among three Twin Cities-area bars: Chanhassen’s School II Bistro, Republic at Calhoun Square, and St. Paul’s Amsterdam Bar and Hall. It’s more fun than your average book club, but that goes without saying because, well, there’s beer.
“The bar is key,” Kamin says. “It provides a low barrier of entry and puts people at ease so they can get some liquid courage, grab a microphone, and share their ideas about the book.” That liquid courage comes in handy, too, because sometimes as many as 200 people attend Books & Bars. That’s a lot of people to picture naked or in their underwear, depending on your preferred strategy.
Like most book clubs, not all participants show up having completed their homework. And that’s okay by Kamin. “I try to pick discussion-worthy books. My goal is that everybody who comes to a show will have fun, gain some insight and feel encouraged to read the current book.”
With most selections, he tends to stick to literary fiction. He keeps the books under 500 pages—because, let’s face it, the Hamburger Helper doesn’t cook itself. Kamin prefers paperback because it’s cheaper, he doesn’t repeat authors, and he makes sure the book allows for a “discussion that won’t feel like a lecture.” He likes to keep things moving quickly so everyone has a chance to contribute, relying on his background in improvisational comedy to produce some laughs throughout the discussion.
He understands, however, that some of the books he picks are not for everyone. August’s selection, for example, was Josh Ostergaard’s “The Devil’s Snake Curve: A Fan’s Notes From Left Field,” and it drew just a few dozen people to the Amsterdam Bar & Hall despite a special appearance by its author.
“That show was our lowest-attended St. Paul event in three years,” says Kamin. “I was worried the book wouldn’t be a popular choice, but it is discussion-worthy.” Ostergaard’s book, which is a deeply researched, offbeat collection of non-fiction essays about politics, baseball, and the occasional beard or mustache, was a bit of a departure from the club’s normal fare.
Michelle Maxwell, a marketing professional in the beverage industry and resident of St. Paul, regularly attends Books & Bars with her friends. Given a microphone at the Amsterdam show, she took the opportunity to speak up in praise of Ostergaard’s book.
“I really liked this book,” Maxwell said. “I’m a baseball fan and I like watching the Twins, and I liked the book’s history. I liked learning about the Royals and Yankees, too. But I never would have read this if Jeff hadn’t picked it, and I’m really glad he did.”
This type of reaction is the ideal one, according to Kamin. “I love to hear people say that, and I want attending Books & Bars to become a regular social activity for these guys.”
“Reading is a solitary thing,” Kamin explains. “Books & Bars flips that so you can share your reading experience with others. You can spend a month doing something alone, and then you can come to the show and share your reactions.” He believes as much can be learned from other readers as can be learned from the book itself.
Kamin knows, however, that his show is not all about the book. “Plenty of people come early for the drink specials,” he says. Local craft breweries like Finnegans, Fulton, and Surly have sponsored past Books & Bars shows, and Kamin knows well how a few beers priced at two or three bucks each can encourage a good time. He even recommended a specific beer pairing for “The Devil’s Snake Curve.”
“Josh is from Kansas City and the book is partly about the Royals, so I thought Boulevard’s Single Wide IPA—a beer from his hometown—was a good choice.” If you haven’t tried this beer, or read Ostergaard’s book for that matter, more options are on the way: Starting in November, Books & Bars will add a monthly show at The Happy Gnome, which is known for pouring a plethora of wonderful craft beers from its 75-plus taps.
Just as The Growler aims to educate and entertain craft beer lovers, Jeff Kamin says his hope is that Books & Bars will “entertain through education.” Whether it’s his unique spin on the monthly book club or a love among his readers for all things related to craft beer, people are drinking it up.