In Providence: The Academy Avenue Book Club

“There’s a system for the books. I don’t know what it is, but — I look at a book and I know where it belongs — on what shelf. It’s a feeling you get looking at it.”

The books are everywhere. He makes sure I finish my coffee and then makes me another cup while the mug is still warm. I sit on a wooden chair with a tall back and next to me is a stack of novels. The top one is a T.C. Boyle that I haven’t read but always meant to.

“They’ll be here between seven and eight. We’re supposed to start at six, but nobody’s ever on time. Being early is impolite, so I don’t mind. I was taught to always arrive a few minutes late.”

He’s been living in this converted attic apartment for the past two years. The Book Club began when he hosted a birthday party for a friend and people started picking up one of the hundreds of books on the floor and on the kitchen counters and on the sink in his bathroom and asked if they could borrow them.

“I said, ‘No.’ I don’t loan out books. I’m not a library. But I told them they could read whatever they wanted while they were here.”

So that’s what they do. They show up and read for an hour and then they talk about what they read. I’ve never heard of any book club like it. There’s usually quite a bit of discussion, but mostly, they just sit silently around his apartment and read the last Saturday of every month.

“People are interested in me and I don’t know why. I’m not a social person and I don’t — I can’t say I really like other people. I don’t. But I like having them nearby, I guess? It’s nice to have them here reading and not bothering me.”

When I ask about the birthday party that started it all and how did he end up throwing a birthday party if he dislikes people and engaging with them, he says–

“The girl was my neighbor, but she couldn’t have a party downstairs, because the way it’s set up is all wrong. If you saw it, you’d get what I mean. You can’t throw a party down there. Up here isn’t much better. It’s too small, but it’s designed better. There’s a flow. I told her, ‘I’ll throw you a party.’ I regretted it as soon as I said it, but once I offered, what else could I do? She was very appreciative, so that was okay. I met a lot of people through her, and some of them still come by and read when we have the club.”

Like most book clubs, attendance wanes and grows. People come month after month, and then never again, with no explanation. Some come to continue reading a book they started the previous month — if they can find it. He swears he doesn’t move the books purposefully, but somehow, they make their way around the apartment, although they never go missing.

“I keep a tight inventory. I know exactly what I have and when I get rid of something. I don’t get rid of things. It’s that simple.”

Guests bring the only thing he asks for: white, red or pink. Doesn’t matter. They can bring food if they want, but he won’t eat it.

“I don’t eat in front of other people. I think it’s rude.”

He won’t tell me his age, but if I had to guess, I’d guess he’s a little younger than me. Late twenties with a soul that’s much, much older.

“When you describe me, don’t say I have an old soul. I hate that.”

Never mind. He doesn’t have an old soul.

“Actually, say whatever you want, it’s your piece.”

For someone who doesn’t enjoy eating in front of others, he has pictures of food all over his walls — apples, mainly apples. And for someone who only reluctantly entertains, he’s very hospitable. Quick with a coffee or a non-fiction recommendation.

“Read about food.  Writing about food is a skill. If you can write about food and not bore people to death, you can write about anything.”

He’s never written anything himself, and he doesn’t intend to.

“Writers are strange. Don’t you find that? Do you find yourself to be strange?”

I do. I often do.

People start to arrive for the Book Club. They grab cushions and sit on the floor. A young woman who looks like she might be 21 or 22 grabs a paperback copy of The Tipping Point and takes it into his bedroom where she closes the door, slightly, and sits on his bed reading every third word aloud.

“She’s nice, but we don’t talk very much. Likes to keep to herself. I can respect that.”

He’s referring to someone sitting on his bed.

“I have no idea what she does when she’s not here. Not a clue. She could be a murderer for all I know.”

A soft laugh runs across his throat as he places a freshly refilled mug of coffee in my hands.

“Wouldn’t that be interesting?”