.Readin’ and Rollin’

BART book club celebrates in-transit reading

Way back in the day, before everyone was hunched over their phones on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), it was common to see people reading newspapers, magazines and—it’s true—books.

In line with its message of carrying people not just to work or the airport, but to a myriad of cultural centers around the Bay Area, BART has launched a book club for riders called “One Book, One BART.”

The idea for the book club was first broached by Dave Martindale, BART’s director of marketing and research, said Michelle Robertson, who described her own BART position as “storyteller.” 

Met with BART internal enthusiasm, the book club concept was handed for development to Robertson, whose master’s degree in English lit made her a natural choice. Using other book clubs around the country as models, Robertson “designed the club from the ground up,” she said. “One Book, One BART” was created to engage both riders and BART employees.

Book choices, it was decided, should ideally be both set in the Bay Area and by Bay Area authors. The first pick was an easy one, said Robertson: Hua Hsu’s Stay True: A Memoir. The author, a staff writer for The New Yorker, set his multi-award-winning book in 1990s Berkeley. BART employees chose Stay True even before its selection as the 2023 Pulitzer Prize winner for memoir, said Robertson.

In a post written for bart.gov, Hsu commented, “I have fond memories of taking BART for a summer job in Berkeley back when I was in high school…I stared at the map, memorizing the names of all the cities and stops between Fremont and Berkeley…when I attended college at Berkeley, BART was how I got to San Francisco for record shops (24th St. Mission) and concerts (Montgomery St.), Halloween parties (16th St. Mission) and summer jobs; the simple thrill of being able to eat burritos in a different area code.”

The New York Times described Hsu’s Stay True in this way: “To say that this book is about grief or coming-of-age doesn’t quite do it justice; nor is it mainly about being Asian American, even though there are glimmers of that too. . . This is a memoir that gathers power through accretion—all those moments and gestures that constitute experience, the bits and pieces that coalesce into a life.” 

Next, when creating the BART book club, Robertson reached out to local independent bookstores, and found them enthusiastic partners. Seven signed up: Moe’s Books and Revolution Books in Berkeley, Reasonable Books in Lafayette, Orinda Books in Orinda, Banter Bookshop in Fremont, Folio Books in San Francisco’s Mission District and Books on B (online, since its Hayward storefront was temporarily closed).

“All the bookstores had to be within a mile of a BART station,” Robertson explained. Each one offered a 20% discount for Stay True on presentation of a BART ticket, Clipper card or mobile Clipper card.

“One Book, One BART” launched on May 17 at the Oakland Rockridge station. Attendees could win free copies of Stay True, and Revolution Books, which appears in the memoir, had a table selling copies of the book. 

“I am always looking to see what books people are reading when they ride BART,” said Revolution events coordinator Reiko Redmonde, “and I thought it would be fun to hold a book club on the train. Also, a few people on the staff had read and liked Stay True, which mentions our bookstore.”

The partnership helped promote the store. “A man who came [in] was happy to find our bookstore for the first time, as well as the book,” she said.

Then came the first “Train Read-in,” on June 17, designed to “test the waters,” said Robertson. Starting at the Rockridge station, the event traveled through three more Oakland stops, under the bay and through seven San Francisco stops, ending at Glen Park. 

Readers gathered at the station, boarded the first train, and besides discussing the book, participated in a trivia contest and a raffle. “This route gives you gorgeous views of the city. And the Yellow Line is very busy,” said Robertson. “It was a diverse, eager group of people, many of whom exchanged names and emails to stay in touch.” One participant noted it was the most socializing they’d done since the pandemic started.

Redmonde agreed, saying, “[It was] a very cool meet-up with people who were, in at least one small way, kindred souls.”

Book club-connected activities continued into the summer, with a free virtual author’s talk with Hua Hsu, moderated by Jeff Chang, held on Aug. 2. The “One Book, One BART” page, bart.gov/bartable, features guided reading questions, contests and further information about the club. BART employees formed their own informal reading groups, meeting at lunchtime to discuss Stay True.

Robertson emphasized that the book club was one of BART’s several literature-inspired events, including the first short-story writing contest for writers, “BART Lines.” The four winning stories were distributed in selected BART stations, including Downtown Berkeley and Oakland’s Fruitvale. This fall will see a poetry contest for local youth poets, she said. 

The success of the book club’s first iteration means it will continue into fall and winter 2023, with a new book selection to be announced shortly. Robertson expects there will be at least two Train Read-ins, on different routes, and again, many related promotions and events. Revolution Books will likely stay a partner. “We hope to continue to participate, in the course of building a movement for real revolution,” said Redmonde.

“In launching ‘One Book, One BART,’ we’re continuing to honor the long tradition of reading books on BART, while celebrating the literary ecosystem in the Bay Area,” said Robertson, “from our region’s trove of independent bookstores to our incredible libraries, to our made-in-the-Bay writers, poets and literary scholars.”  

More information about future ‘One Book, One BART’ events will also appear on BARTable’s social media channels, including Instagram, X (formerly known as Twitter) and Facebook. For more information about the upcoming youth poets’ contest, visit bart.gov/news for updates.

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