Five people ranging in age from their early teens to 40-something sat around a long table, appearing unperturbed by the generational differences between them. Their discussion revolved around the protagonist and a complex cast of characters from a novel they had all read.
The gathering was part of the Well-Read Black Girl book club, a Brooklyn-based venture where readers host discussion groups in their home neighborhoods based on a select list of books by authors of color that the participants read and comment on.
One Bronx group that takes part in the reading club meets on the third Saturday of every month at Mottley Kitchen on 140th Street, and is facilitated by Boogie Down Books, the South Bronx venture that describes itself as a “bookstore without walls,” and is bringing its own book club under the Well-Read Black Girl umbrella.
On a Saturday in mid-June, the discussion focused on this month’s selection, the novel The Fire on High by bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo.
Suleka Dotel, who originally found out about the book club through Instagram, has been coming to the meetings for about a year. The group represents an opportunity to meet others from the area who also like to read and discuss books, she said.
“I mean, I read all books but it’s nice to read books that are written by women of color,” said Dotel. “That’s been underrepresented for so long.”
One woman at the gathering, Shari, hadn’t read the book but worked off a multiple-page breakdown of the novel’s themes that her friend, a regular member at the monthly meetings, had given her. Shari’s friend wished that she and her daughter could have been present as always, but. who she sent Shari instead.
“Based off of the Cliff Notes that I was provided, I took it that the grandmother is just, I guess, reinforcing stereotypical gender roles within the Latino community,” said Shari, who works as a social worker at a Harlem middle school.
Boogie Down Books was launched in 2018 on a startup budget of just $3,000. It was the creation of educational consultant and former teacher Rebekah Shoaf, who applied for a neighborhood grant in 2017 through the Citizens Committee for New York City, which sponsors initiatives in low-income neighborhoods. The partnership with Well-Read Black Girl will help determine Boogie Down Books’ own focus, said Shoaf, who lives in Mott Haven.
“That will be a lens for how we choose the books and how we talk about the books that we read,” she said. “It’s very much consistent with how we’ve been choosing the books that we’ve been reading.”
Wesley Sanders, who guided the June 15 discussion along with Shoaf, said growing up in Parkchester was foundational to his understanding the importance of the initiative’s mission. “I didn’t have those resources growing up. So just having it for them means a lot to me.”
The surest time to catch a Boogie Down Books event is on Saturdays at the South Bronx Farmers Market, which opens on June 22, or at one a children’s story session Saturdays at 10 a.m. at Mottley Kitchen.