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Librarian's project: Bars and books

Heather Johnson, a library aide at the circulation desk for three years, will oversee the adult summer reading program with the three featured books at downtown taverns. Johnson's parents were both teachers. Her father, Doug Hjersjo, retired recently after coaching and teaching history at River Falls High School. Heather and her husband Sam live in the town of River Falls at a farm called River Brink Stables with their daughters Maggie, 7, Addie 5 and Katie, almost 2. Submitted photo.

RIVER FALLS - Call it 21st century library outreach. There's a new book club in town, and it's coming to a bar near you.

And that's not a misprint.

River Falls Public Library aide Heather Johnson has boosted the visibility of the Adult Summer Reading Program with a book club for those 21 and over.

The novel aspect of this club is that it'll meet at a different local bar each month of summer for a relaxing book discussion.

The first book for June is "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War," by Max Brooks.

Coincidentally, a blockbuster movie version of "World War Z" starring Brad Pitt will premiere just days before the book club meets.

Johnson, working on a master's in library science at UW-Madison, says the book club initiative is an academic project. But she says the new book club and its setting is more real than academic.

"We'd like to attract new library patrons," Johnson said. "In the digital age, libraries today are trying to re-invent themselves to stay relevant."

So how's that done?

"The summer book club is about branching out, going beyond our comfort zone," says Johnson. "It's moving beyond the library walls, going to places where people hang out and introducing them to the resources of the local library in a non-traditional, casual setting."

The summer library book club will meet at these times and places:

--6 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, at Johnnie's Bar, 116 N. Main St., to discuss "World War Z," a novel by Max Brooks (son of comedian Mel Brooks ) about a global zombie menace as narrated by survivors. (The movie with Pitt opens in theaters June 21.)

--6 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, at Lazy River Bar & Grill, 115 W. Walnut St., for the book "The Lost Garden," by Canadian writer Helen Humphreys, a World War II novel where a gardener flees bombed out London to a countryside estate. There she's placed in charge of a crop-growing effort called the Women's Land Army. A regiment of Canadian soldiers set to leave for the front is also posted at the estate.

--6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, at Coach's Bar & Grill, 127 S. Main St., for "Gardens of Water," by Alan Drew, described by USA Today as "fascinating, heartbreaking book" about two families, two religious faiths, and how their difficult lives are thrown into turmoil by a cataclysmic earthquake in Turkey in 1999.

Johnson said the library book club will likely bring extra business for the host downtown bars. She hopes the bar settings won't be a turnoff for some. Johnson picked local bars with newer, outdoor patios so book club members could meet outside and savor the mild weather. Meeting times are Tuesday evenings, usually a slower, less noisy time for bars.

"People who show up can also feel free to order their own food or drinks," she says.

There is no pre-registration for the adult summer library book club.

Copies of the three featured books can either be checked out at the River Falls library, ordered from the regional public library consortium MORE, or bought somewhere.

Johnson will lead discussions and bring thematic questions. She says people are welcome to attend meetings without bringing the featured book or even having read it.

"This all very informal and welcoming," she says about the club meetings. "You can just show up, sit in, enjoy the atmosphere and listen to what's being talked about."

Johnson said the three chosen books meet these criteria: Still in print, including paperback, meaning easily available and not too expensive; exciting, contemporary stories appealing to both men and women; and falling under the "groundbreaking" theme.

That's the thematic name -- "Groundbreaking Reads" -- Wisconsin libraries have selected for adult summer reading programs.

The library summer reading theme for youth is called "Dig into Reading;" for teens, "Beneath the Surface."

Johnson said "Groundbreaking Reads" in River Falls this summer will also include brief book reviews by library patrons.

Forms can be picked up at the circulation desk. There's space to write in the book's title, author, rating of the book and a line of commentary.

As book review forms are returned, they'll be posted in the library for others to look over. The forms also include contact information that people can fill out to be eligible for a weekly prize drawing.

Said Johnson about the book club and book reviews: "Fun at the library isn't just for kids."

She also said that River Falls isn't the first library to go mobile -- other libraries have sponsored events or held book club meetings at venues like bowling alleys and coffee shops, and, yes, also at bars.

"This isn't about encouraging drinking," she said. "We want people, including those who don't even use the library, to see us operating at a new place and maybe bringing them in to participate in library programming, get their library cards and join with other members of the community."

She said the summer library book club may decide on other outings -- like going to the "World War Z" movie.

"Library patrons should feel as if they have a say," Johnson said.

She adds the level of interest will likely determine if the book club resumes next summer or even expands into a year-round club.