Earlier this month, the host of NPR's Nerdette podcast, Greta Johnsen, dropped in on Silent Book Club at Dorothy, a lesbian bar in Chicago (previously featured in this great article). She and her producer interviewed SBC organizer Charlie Schumann and bar owner Whitney LaMora, and chatted with attendees and bartenders to hear what people thought of Silent Book Club.
It's a fantastic listen, highly recommend. The story aired on WBEZ Chicago and you can find the recording online (the SBC feature starts at 15:15), but we've transcribed it here if you don't have a podcast player handy.
Even if you're not lucky enough to live in Chicago to attend in person, you can still get monthly book recommendations from host Charlie Schumann on Dorothy's website. Added bonus, book links on their site directly benefit Semicolon, Chicago’s only Black woman–owned bookstore and gallery. Enjoy!
Silent Book Club: An introvert’s dream
We head to Chicago lesbian bar Dorothy for a night of reading alone together.
By Greta Johnsen, Anna Bauman
Jan 19, 2024
On a cold Sunday night in December, Nerdette producer Anna Bauman and I headed over to a basement bar to check out the scene. It is at capacity. Every seat is full. There are two lines snaking out from the bar, cocktail shakers are shaking, music is playing. But people are not here to party, which surprised Juday, who was expecting a different situation.
“So I’m out with my friends and I’m like googling, there’s gotta be a gay bar somewhere in this neighborhood… I looked up this place and I was like, Dorothy, oh, I’ll meet a sugar daddy there! And I walk in and I was like, NO.” [Laughter]
This is completely the wrong bar because while it is packed, the people are here to read. Almost every single person here has their nose in a book. They are reading quietly because it is Silent Book Club night at Dorothy.
“I like people. But sometimes I'm like, I don't really have anything to say to you. I just want to read my little book. But you want to read your little book, too. So now we can just do it next to each other.”
That is Charlie Schumann. They're the curator of Dorothy's Silent Book Club. One Sunday a month the bar shifts from hip hangout to hip bookish hanging out, which means they're turning up the lights a little more and turning down the music. And it is basically an introvert’s dream.
What is a Silent Book Club, you ask? It's pretty simple.
“You don’t have to read the same book. Everybody comes and they bring their own book. And yeah, it's also a way to meet people who like to read and specifically here at Dorothy's, since it’s a lesbian bar, queer people who like to read, and typically like to read queer books or queer literature.”
Unlike a traditional book club, you don't have to read the same book. That means no deadlines, no obligations to come up with something smart to say, no need to prepare a snack to share, no need to talk to anybody at all. You get to be surrounded by people who love books as much as you do. And they're popping up everywhere. According to the Silent Book Club website, there are over 500 chapters in 50 countries.
“It's low pressure and I like that. I personally think I really benefit from doing something alone but around other people. Sort of a ‘being alone together’ situation. I feel like I really benefit from that. It just feels better to me to be doing it with other people. And I think other people feel like that, too.”
As we mentioned, Charlie is the official curator for the Silent Book Club at Dorothy. That means they're available to offer up recommendations or answer questions, but mostly they just get to hang out and soak up the good videos.
“So how annoyed are people going to be that we're here and want to talk to them at a Silent Book Club?”
“I think that they will be okay. One thing I think that people get confused about when they hear ‘silent’ is, I've had multiple people be like, so is nobody allowed to—
“Nobody talk to me!”
“Do you have to just whisper? And I'm like, No, that's not the vibe at all. Like people come in and they read, but also people talk to each other about what they're reading. And we have a group actually that comes in here and does a book exchange, which is really cute. So they come in and they do their little book exchange and talk about the books that they're exchanging and that kind of stuff. So people are not going to be too annoyed. I think they’d be happy to talk to you."
“Okay, good. I'm glad to hear that. It's fun, because I'm always like the creep on the train who’s like, WHAT ARE YOU READING? So this is very exciting.”
And that is exactly what we did.
[Exaggerated whisper] “What are you reading?”
“It’s called How to be Animal.
“Cool. What's it about?”
“It's a scientific exploration of the way in which humans are very much animal even though we tried to convince ourselves that we're not. I studied ecology when I was younger, and so I like STEM-y, nerdy books.
“Would you consider yourself an introvert?”
“Oh, yeah, for sure. 100%.”
“What is your sense of the evening so far?”
“I'm just really excited to be here. I'm here with my girlfriend and we're just gonna get drinks and read books together. So excited about that.”
“That's awesome. What book did you bring?”
“I brought Kiss Her Once for Me. It's a holiday tale about two girls that fall in love.”
“I'm reading Smile: The Story of a Face, by Sarah Ruhl.”
“How is it?”
“Well, I'm on page one…”
“Oh, wow. We really interrupted you at the perfect time.”
[Laughing] “Yeah, I came here because I have a 10 month old at home and I thought it would be quiet and maybe less crowded than my living room, but it's packed. Which is great!”
“So what brought you tonight?”
“I'd actually been planning to go to Dorothy's for like the past year, but I never went to any of the events because I was like, oh, the bar scene, and people, and flirting and just lots of people. And so when the Silent Book Club started, I was like, Oh, I can do this. And I sat right over near the piano. And I sat down in a chair area of like four chairs and I was like, Okay, let's see if anyone sits next to me and someone walked up and was like, can me and my two friends sit here with you? And I was like, Sure! And then we all became friends!”
As we were disrupting people's reading we had to watch our step because readers are everywhere.
“This is a dark corner.”
[Laughing] “It is.”
“You had like a little flashlight out and everything.”
“There were no available chairs.”
“Really, you're like tucked in between some plants. You're doing it.”
“It's very cozy.”
Dorothy co-owner Whitney LaMora says this happens at every book club event.
“Our capacity is 120, but we don't have 120 seats. So people have sat on the floor. My favorite that I've seen is somebody camped out in our photo booth. They used that as a seat and I was like, respect, my friend! You know, until someone needs to take a photo, why not? It's a chair!”
Whitney says most Sundays at Dorothy are pretty quiet, but on Silent Book Club days there's often a line out the door. Thankfully, to no one's surprise, readers make excellent customers.
“It was the most polite 100 people to ever walk in the door. They just silently lined up at the bar at two corners and everyone just one by one ordered a cocktail.”
And the bartenders noticed too.
“We actually have kind of a joke that they're the nicest of all the people. Even though they are really, really busy days, they're not hard or stressful to go into.”
It's true. Everyone was so nice. We literally showed up and put microphones in a bunch of introverts’ faces and they were delighted to talk about how much they loved being in that space reading alone together. So while you may not find a sugar daddy, people at Dorothy on Silent Book Club night will meet you where you want to be. Which to Whitney, the bar’s owner, is exactly the point.
“Come in, nobody's gonna bother you. Read what you want, stay as long as you want. Talk to whoever, or don't. That's fine with us.”