The anonymous pieces of furniture at La Madeline in Old Town are nicked up in a way that suggest a café in southern France, warm wooden tones with pale yellow walls and bric a brac from Provence. It’s shabby chic and evocative of the European. Lois Walker says that its the perfect spot to hold her weekly meeting of the Democratic Book Club — an inviting public space with a hassle-free sense of consumer culture.
“They don’t mind if we sit here for couple of hours and talk about the book we’re read this week,” said Walker, brandishing a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.”
Walker keeps a list of the potential books, but she doesn’t really moderate. Former member Pete Schumaier led the group until he died last year. Now, Walker said, it’s more of a free-for all. Last week’s discussion, for example, veered into many areas: the Lincolns’ marriage, his egocentric Cabinet members, his matchless writing skills, his destitute childhood and even the second-floor room of the White House that served as his office.
Kit Leider, who joined the outfit about three months ago, said that La Madeline offered a coffeehouse atmosphere with a little something extra.
“They’ve got wine here, and that’s a big plus,” she Leider after taking a sip of Shiraz. “It’s an informal setting that makes people comfortable.”
In coffeehouses and cafes, many book clubs choose to meet at public establishments. It’s a way for book-club organizers to rid themselves of the stress of hosting and relax while chewing the fat over big issues.
Over a glass of wine, with pedestrians passing by in the windows along Pitt Street, participants of the Democratic Book Club disagreed about the merits of last week’s selection, “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” by Nathaniel Philbrick. But they were in unanimous praise of Goodwin’s study of the interpersonal relationship between members of President Lincoln’s inner circle.
“We’ve made a point of reading biographies of most of the presidents,” said Nancy Arensen, a longtime member of the club. “And we’ve decided that if Lincoln were around today, he would be a Democrat.”
IN ARLINGTON, Marcus Friesen arrives at Murky Coffee every Wednesday night by 7 p.m. to reserve a set of couches in the upstairs room, an inviting public space filled with used furniture that is frequently the location of public affairs and community meetings. Friesen is the moderator of a bible-discussion group sponsored by McLean Presbyterian Church, which picks up the tab for a cup of coffee as an enticement for the open invitation. He says that the location is perfect for attracting the widest possible group of participants. It’s doesn’t create the socially awkward barrier of driving to a stranger’s home, and it’s not as intimidating a meeting in a church — “neutral ground,” he calls it.
“We want the discussion to be open to people who have never been to church and people who are from different denominations,” said Friesen, who has led the discussion for the last year. “It’s a safe place to discuss issues that can be dicey.”
At the counter, Friesen puts a cup of Earl Grey tea on the tab. Upstairs, he runs a tight ship. Last week, for example, he led an hour-long conversation about Hebrews Chapter 5 — a text that has fewer than 500 words. By going chapter by chapter in the Bible, the discussion group hopes to take a microscopic look at small sections for an in-depth focus.
“There are a lot of complex issues in each chapter,” he said. “Is Jesus Christ both God and man? That’s one of the issues involved in this chapter.”
The previous discussion leader, Matthew Tuininga, named the book club “CSI Truth: Bible Discussion Group.” By using the popular network forensic drama as a hook, Tuininga wanted to express the investigatory nature of going through the Bible chapter by chapter. But it was a marketing strategy that could lead to confusion, though: Was Mount Calvary a crime scene, and whose DNA is on the Shroud of Turin?
“The name of our group is actually kind of up for discussion right now,” said Friesen.
“More often than not, I refer to it as the Murky Bible Study.”
COFFEEHOUSES HAVE a long-established tradition of being important centers of public life. The New York Stock Exchange began as a group of brokers that met at a Wall Street coffeehouse in Manhattan. In Williamsburg, an archeological team is now researching the remains of the center of Virginia’s colonial financial institution — the coffee house on Duke of Gloucester Street immediately next to the Capitol. While Murky Coffee is one of Arlington’s best known modern day version, St. Elmo’s is easily Alexandria’s busiest spot for bookish people.
Nora Partlow, St. Elmo’s easygoing owner, embraces group meetings with arms wide open. Her philosophy is that those who come to her Del Ray establishment for a meeting will become return customers. As long as they are buying some kind of product, anybody is welcome to schedule a meeting at the Mount Vernon Avenue landmark. Congressman Jim Moran (D-8) frequently holds town-hall meetings there, as did former School Board Chairman Mark Wilkoff.
“A busy store is better than an empty store,” said Partlow. “In my opinion, book clubs are good for business.”
The friendly neighborhood vibe at St. Elmo’s is well known in the region, and people come from all over the area to be part of the scene. Del Ray resident D.T. Max wrote a book about a fatal form of insomnia in a seat by the window, a medical mystery that Partlow now sells along with muffins and scones.
“It’s a great book, and I would highly recommend it,” she said. “Maybe somebody could organize a book club at St. Elmo’s to discuss it."