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Books with a side of fries: Creative book club gaining popularity

BAXTER, Minn. - Over a Longmire smoked brisket sandwich and a pint of Devil's Companion porter, lakes area readers engaged in live conversation earlier this month with Western mystery author Craig Johnson.For October, the group read "The Cold Dis...

Laurel Hall, left, and Sheila DeChantal lead a Skype discussion with Western mystery author Craig Johnson earlier this month at Prairie Bay Grill in Baxter, Minn. The conversation was featured at October's Books, Burgers and Brews event. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service
Laurel Hall, left, and Sheila DeChantal lead a Skype discussion with Western mystery author Craig Johnson earlier this month at Prairie Bay Grill in Baxter, Minn. The conversation was featured at October's Books, Burgers and Brews event. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service
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BAXTER, Minn. - Over a Longmire smoked brisket sandwich and a pint of Devil's Companion porter, lakes area readers engaged in live conversation earlier this month with Western mystery author Craig Johnson.

For October, the group read "The Cold Dish," the first book in Johnson's Walt Longmire mystery series - now produced as a Netflix series, "Longmire." For nearly an hour, Johnson answered questions via Skype of the more than 50 people at the latest gathering of Books, Burgers and Brews at Prairie Bay Grill in Baxter.

The year-old book club casts aside some of the traditional notions of a quiet and serious affair, opting for large, loud and interactive. A special menu developed by Prairie Bay chefs plays off themes in the books, featuring food and drink enjoyed by characters or named in their honor. For "The Cold Dish," choices also included The& Vic burger and The Rye-Venge deli sandwich - "served up cold with arugula and contemporary Western ranch."

Laurel Hall, librarian at Brainerd Public Library, and Sheila DeChantal, president of the Friends of the Brainerd Public Library, are the faces of the ever-growing group.

DeChantal said the idea for the club was born at a Friends brainstorming session, inspired by the Books and Bars event in Minneapolis.

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"She started it, and I got roped in," Hall said with a laugh.

"Initially, the thought behind it was to engage people that are either non-readers, who never really got into reading, or what I call dormant readers, those who read back in school but then suddenly had lives, kids and careers," DeChantal said. "I wanted to remind people the love of a book, and the importance of having a book in our community."

With this goal in mind, the first selection in October 2016 was "The Martian" by Andy Weir, made into a movie in 2015 starring Matt Damon. An immersive touch at that gathering was NASA-themed water bottles, DeChantal said.

Although not every event allows for conversation with the author, DeChantal said they work hard to incorporate themes from the book into the event's flavor, while focusing on shorter books with a mostly lighter feel.

"We're not really picking deep discussion titles," DeChantal said. "So it doesn't feel like homework."

At first, DeChantal and Hall planned to put the club on hiatus during the summer, assuming it might not fit into the busy schedules of summertime life. But as May approached, it seemed the best idea was to keep it going.

"It got so big by the time we were getting to May that I asked Laurel, I hate to lose momentum," DeChantal said. "So we created the summer edition, with lighter, more summery titles."

While so far, Books, Burgers and Brews seems to be attracting those already part of other book clubs, organizers said they're starting to see a more age- and genre-diverse group. Neither Hall nor DeChantal had ever read a Western before Johnson's book, and "The Cold Dish" event drew others who decided to expand from their typical choice. But it also drew Johnson superfans, DeChantal said, and others in between. People in their 20s and 30s are showing up, and the event is nearly bursting at the seams - it might soon need a larger home to accommodate attendance. Twenty to 30 copies of each upcoming book have been made available to readers through the "Book in a Bag" program, although they've had trouble keeping up with demand.

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The event is getting attention from outside the Brainerd area, as well. At the October conference of the Minnesota Library Association, the Minnesota Association of Library Friends awarded Books, Burgers and Brews second place for the 2017 Evy Nordley Award for Best Project. This isn't the first time a Brainerd project's been recognized - the annual two-day event Wine and Words at Grand View Lodge was awarded first place in 2015.

Hall said it's been a fun challenge to select titles for the club, and it's always a surprise to see who it attracts. She's deliberately focused on titles featuring younger people, interesting complications and twists and those that don't end with the characters "living happily ever after and walking into the sunset."

"We want to be making sure we're emphasizing the social aspect of books," Hall said. "That books can be something that can live within the imagination of a community or a group, and you can discover things about yourself through other people ... creating connections through people that way."

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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