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Originally published Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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A new way to look at book clubs

Lori Richardson perused the book shelves, picking up one book for consideration and then another. At first glance, there was little that...

The Associated Press

BELLINGHAM — Lori Richardson perused the book shelves, picking up one book for consideration and then another.

At first glance, there was little that appeared to tie the widely varying authors and genres together. But a closer inspection revealed shelf tags and signs promoting local book-club selections.

Richardson, a book-club member, was looking over some of the selections of the more than 60 reading groups registered at Village Books, a 27-year-old landmark in Bellingham.

Her book club, like so many, began with a simple formula: Gather a few friends, colleagues or neighbors; pick a book; read it; and get together over wine and cheese or popcorn and soda to discuss it.

Once a hot trend that saw everyone from celebrities and politicians to housewives and neighbors getting together to read and dish, the book clubs of today are evolving, forgoing the Oprah Winfrey model of read-and-discuss and getting creative about how they meet, read and socialize over books.

"I used to think if Oprah decided not to do her show, there would be a decline in book clubs," said Diana Loevy, author of "The Book Club Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Reading Group Experience."

"But now I don't think so. Book clubs are evolving. They are creating social units that really work. They serve a social function."

While there are no statistics available for the number of book clubs nationwide, there is more than passing anecdotal evidence about the evolution of the book club.

Take the reading groups registered at Village Books.

There's "Pages, Pictures and Pints," an all-comers monthly book club where participants read a book, go see the movie adapted from the book and then get together for drinks at a bar to discuss it. Among the books-turned-movies up for discussion in the new year is John le Carré's "The Constant Gardener" and Joe Simpson's "Touching the Void."

There's also a mother-daughter book group, which targets girls between 9 and 12. And for the area's cooking lovers, a group known as Armchair Chefs focuses readings on cookbooks.

Around the country, book clubs have also become networking tools for young professionals. In Hollywood, a group of production assistants formed a reading group to discuss books about the movies or television shows they work on. In New York, a group of would-be playwrights gets together to read published plays and make suggestions about their own works.

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Norman Hicks founded Reader's Circle, a Web site aimed at providing an alternative to the traditional book club, as a way to meet people after graduating college.

Rather than have a group read one book following a structured format, Reader's Circle promotes bringing people together in public settings, such as coffee houses, to discuss a variety of books at once.

"I think a lot of people were drawn to it because they could read what they want, talk about it and get suggestions for other books," said Hicks, 29.

It's that same idea behind PaperBackSwap.com, an online book club that allows members to trade their books with others. The site also makes a book-of-the-month selection and offers live online chats for its members to discuss books, said founder Richard Pickering of Atlanta.

Pickering said it also was cost-effective for participants who can't afford to buy new books on a routine basis. Since its inception, PaperBackSwap.com has amassed a library of 900,000 books and sees its users trade about 30,000 books a month, Pickering said.

With the decrease in book sales, book stores large and small have begun using the Internet and technology, such as the iPod, to sell books for download. They also have begun creating online book clubs to link readers together.

But it is still the face-to-face meetings, the social aspect that appears to drive the book-club culture — and its success or failure.

For Barbara Randall, a book club was a way to meet neighbors after moving into her Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood. For nearly seven years, the women on her block met monthly to discuss books — and their families.

"A lot of us in the group were mothers with children, and we were desperate to get out of the house," she said.

But as their children grew up, the club began to fall apart.

"We had established strong friendships. That once-a-month thing wasn't that necessary any more," she said. "Now, we just pick up the phone or go over and knock on the door."

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