Wanting to make more of the “comfort zone” sitting area in the basement of The Greatest Gift & Scripture Supply, owner Heather Trost decided to host a weekly book club. The move has paid dividends in more ways than she expected.

Not only has the event at the Pueblo, Colorado store cemented relationships with some of her core customers, it has drawn first-time visitors and resulted in additional sales.

“From that little group we probably sold another 15 to 20 books, including some authors we’d not had in the store,” recalls the CBA board member of the nine-week conversation around Barbour Books’ “The Lassoed by Marriage Romance Collection” of novellas.

Trost tapped into what some believe to be a recent book club renaissance that offers a community-building opportunity for other Christian stores. According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, 11 percent of the population participated in literary, discussion, or study groups like books clubs.

Nor are they women-only. A handful of guys’ groups have popped up around the country, including one started at the Seattle Seahawks clubhouse by defensive tackle and keen reader Michael Bennett.

High engagement

“People love technology, but they’re starting to miss connection with friends,” says Angela Breidenbach of the trend. “They want a deeper relationship than the picture of their grandchildren on Facebook.” Breidenbach, an author and the president of the Christian Author Network, says CAN members take part in book group discussions in person and via social media.

The picture of a cozy book club may seem to contradict the image of voracious readers as introverted types, but “when you read something wonderful and enjoy the experience, you naturally want to talk about it with your friends,” says Breidenbach.

Indeed, so strong is that impulse to share that HarperCollins Christian Publishing includes discussion questions in every novel. “The act of gathering together in a single room to discuss a piece of content does seem rather retro, because we receive such a high quantity of engagement over social media,” observes VP and Publisher of Fiction Daisy Hutton.

“But the kind of engagement that book clubs offer is an antidote to the kind of hit-and-run engagement that social media offers,” she continues. “Book clubs value the quality of engagement over the quantity. And that feels very refreshing right now.”

Another false stereotype is that book clubs are just for middle-aged women who like prairie romances. Two guys have been part of the group at Trost’s store, while participants in the one run at Watermark Christian Store at Calvary Chapel in Melbourne, Florida, range in age from 17 to their 80s.

As with most clubs, the Watermark one is largely centered on fiction, but since the group began in 2009, it has featured everything from Amish and historical to thrillers and chick-lit.

“Even some YA and dystopian,” says store manager Rachel Savage. In a church-related context, she also notes that book clubs can be “a great starting point for people who are perhaps too timid to get involved in a Bible study.”

Hosting advice

But there’s more to a successful book club than just setting up a circle of chairs. First, it’s important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all―either when it comes to genre or meeting time. Running one group and assuming you’ve catered to all your readers is like stocking only Janette Oke novels and thinking that makes for a fiction department.

Older readers might be more likely to turn out in the morning, while working types could be interested in a shorter, brown bag lunch-time event. Some might want to meet weekly while others may prefer a once-a-month gathering. “Think about times that work in the lifecycle of a family,” says author and American Christian Fiction Writers Executive Board member Cara Putman, who has taken part in book club discussions. “Try different days and different times, and learn from each attempt.”

If all that sounds like too much work added to an already stretched schedule, look for volunteers to take it on. They may be among your best customers, or booklovers who are part of local churches looking for an opportunity to serve. Advanced reader copies and the occasional special coupon will make good rewards for their efforts.

It’s important that any event is well staffed, emphasizes Kim Marquette, brand director with DaySpring, who presented a popular workshop on successful in-store happenings at CBA’s UNITE 2016.

“Get friends and family involved if you need to, but make sure there are enough people available that no one is left feeling uncomfortable or alone at the table,” she emphasizes. “You have to have people actively engaging with everyone who comes in through the door because you want everyone to have a great experience.”

Good leadership

Marquette’s advice underscores that visitors don’t leave a store neutral. If they don’t go away as ambassadors, impressed by what they experienced, their ho-hum tells other people not to bother.

While Trost didn’t bother with snacks for her group―that meant extra time and money that wasn’t necessary, she says, because people were just happy to attend, and it was held just before lunch―Marquette believes they are an important part of any event, even if it’s just a few chocolates scattered on the table and some ice water.

“If people can have a drink in their hand they’re usually calmer,” she says. “It gives them something to do―they can take a sip and they don’t have to talk all the time. It’s all about making sure we understand the psyche of the people who are coming in and making [the experience] as pleasant as possible.”

Good leadership extends to the actual discussion. “You don’t want to get people who like to hear themselves talk,” advises Savage. “You want to find people who bring other people out of their shells without being pushy.” The Watermark meetings start with an icebreaker question that “helps to get people talking who don’t usually say anything else,” she adds.

Clear guidelines for how the group runs are important, “but when the conversation rolls, let it roll as long as everyone is involved,” says Breidenbach. Group size is important as well, she adds: too many people, and some don’t feel comfortable sharing. Breidenbach says five to eight may be optimum, though up to a dozen can work. But it can be okay to have more members in the group, Trost says, because chances are not everyone will turn up every time.

Marketing strategies

There are plenty of ways to get the word out beyond a store’s email and social media networks. Continue reading this article at www.cbaonline.org/BookClubs to find out how to get the attention of readers, draw them into your store, and use book clubs to maximize sales potential.

Andy Butcher is a British-born journalist whose career has seen him write for newspapers, edit magazines, direct a communications network for an international mission agency, and author/co-author four books. He and his wife, Marcia, live in Orlando, Florida.