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Bridging the distance between San Francisco's many book groups

Wednesday, Jul 31 2002
The words "book club" usually bring to mind a gaggle of twentysomething women sitting around someone's living room, sipping herbal tea and discussing Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The Book Club of California couldn't be more different. Instead, this group of hard-core book lovers meets every Monday night at its headquarters in the Financial District -- to sip cocktails and discuss fine printing. The Book Club is a member organization of the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies, a national association of bookish types, which includes 25 other affiliate groups. Most cities, including New York, have one such group; the Bay Area has three, of which the Book Club of California is the oldest and the largest.

The other two local associations grew up alongside the Book Club of California, and each has a distinct personality. The Roxburghe Club of San Francisco began in 1928 and is made up primarily of book collectors of a particularly erudite (some would say snooty) stripe who meet monthly. The Colophon Club started in 1979, in part to give women a place to belong (the Roxburghe was men-only until that year) and in part to add a more social element to the local book scene; many of its members, who also meet monthly, make books in one way or another. The Book Club of California, launched in 1912, boasts 1,000 members around the world (most in the western U.S.); it has the most public face of the three, with an impressive publishing program, an extensive library, and weekly open houses friendly to newcomers. All three have a common cause -- to unite book lovers -- and do so mainly through get-togethers and giveaways.

These distinct personalities are all the more remarkable because there's so much overlap in the membership: I spoke to eight people who were members of at least two, if not all three, groups. In addition, they were often associated with more craft-oriented local organizations like the Hand Bookbinders of California, the Pacific Center for the Book Arts, and the San Francisco Center for the Book. Why do we need so many book-loving societies? You'd think you could get your book fix with a long visit to Green Apple. It turns out the local book community has divided itself into two groups with seemingly disparate interests, and the Book Club of California hopes to be the bridge between them.

On a recent Monday night, the draw is small at the weekly Book Club soiree. Maybe 10 people, most of them in late middle age, sit on couches and stuffed chairs, drink in hand, surrounded on all sides by books. It looks like a cross between Harry Potter's library and the AARP, with a dash of a Dewar's ad thrown in. Everyone is deeply enmeshed in conversation. Member Larry Prast, charming and warm, introduces me around like a proud grandfather. Among the attendees is J. Curtiss Taylor, president of the Book Club and also a member of both the Colophon and the Roxburghe and on the board of the San Francisco Center for the Book. A former commercial printer, he was lured into the local book scene through friends. When the slim, white-haired Taylor hands me his business card, it is, not surprisingly, beautifully printed.

On the phone the following week, Taylor gives me his take on the many local clubs. The Colophon, he explains, includes many people involved with the book arts -- printers, bookbinders, conservators, that sort. Of the Roxburghers, he says, "They are quite intellectual; they collect books that support their intellectual interests." They focus more on "content," less on "construction," unlike the Colophon's members. "The average age of the Colophon is, let's say, 35. The average age in the Roxburghe Club is about 65. It's a different interest community." The Book Club, he thinks, is "in between."

This apparent division between those who make books and those who collect them is a touchy subject, one that most clubbers are eager to downplay. The idea plays into pervasive stereotypes: Collectors and their clubs are old and snobbish, unwilling to adapt. Book arts people are young and wacky, without respect for tradition. Some will admit there is truth to the typecasting. The current president of the Colophon, Susan Filter, describes it as "a little more bohemian than the Roxburghe." The Colophon doesn't turn people away who want to join its roster of about 80 members; the Roxburghe's rather secretive roll of 100 has openings only when someone dies or resigns (as for ill health) and requires that newbies be put up by current members and approved by committee. Then again, both have regular dinners and lectures, and the two clubs come together every October for a party called the Wayzgoose, which everyone insists is a grand old time.

The Book Club of California acts as both umbrella organization and common link. It's a little bit exclusive -- you also have to be nominated to become a member -- but it's not hard to join, and anyone is welcome at the open houses. And it's a little bit artsy -- the yearly keepsakes the club produces for its members are both handsome and curiously focused, with titles like "California's Wayside Inns" and "Early California Trade Catalogs." (The Book Club also publishes a Quarterly Newsletter along with 300 to 400 editions of two or three books a year, which members have the first opportunity to buy.) It has the largest membership of any local book group -- about 90 percent of the Roxburghe's members are also in the Book Club, for example -- and is the only one with a permanent home, in the World Affairs building on Sutter.

No one thinks that a certain group is better than another or that one lays a greater claim to authenticity. But the personality differences mean that there is some tension between the groups, despite the overlap in membership. For example, one member of both the Book Club and the Colophon describes the Roxburghe (of which she's not a part) as "an old-boys' club ... a look-down-your-nose community," and maintains that the Colophon is "more user-friendly." Meanwhile, the Book Club includes both longtime members and fresh recruits, "old boys" and new girls.

John Borden, the Book Club's treasurer, is an example of the Old Guard. Generally considered the institutional memory of the club, he can tell stories about every book in the 2,500-volume library -- and will, if you let him. He handles the carefully bound tomes lovingly, and though he'd like to see more people make use of the library, he seems reluctant to bring in a rush of new members. He's happy with just 1,000: "That way we know how many Quarterly Newsletters to print." He's dubious about efforts to lure tours into the collection -- tours he would lead.

Curt Taylor is the architect of such plans. "There's a fellowship in the book arts community," he explains. He'd like to draw younger people into the Book Club -- if not as members then at least as visitors to the library (which does not circulate). One method will be to send letters out to select members inviting them to sign up for a tour, and eventually to open those tours to the public -- perhaps even promoting them at places like the San Francisco Center for the Book. Taylor can envision more people showing up for the weekly cocktail hour. If they could draw 30 or 40 every Monday night, "We might need to get a bigger place! That'd be fabulous."

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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