Oakland book club more than just a pretty cover
By Lou Fancher
Reading gets a bad rap: It's hard, boring, old-fashioned, no fun.
Enter Nakia White, founder and national executive chair of the Oakland-based BookTini Book Club. Surrounded by laughter and the 14 young professional black women who are members, White, 34, said, "I just wanted to talk about books with educated people my age. Having drinks with the books is part of the attraction, too."
BookTini began in Oakland in 2009 after White and Mikele Lewis borrowed an idea they picked up on Facebook.
"I had a friend who wrote about how much she loved her book club on her Facebook page; I wanted one, too," White said.
The club pairs each month's book with a thematically related cocktail. The first meeting was held at Oakland Grille, and the book was Pleasure by Eric Jerome Dickey. The signature drink? A strawberry mimosa.
From its humble origins, BookTini has grown to 62 mostly African-American women members and charter groups in Brooklyn, N.Y., Washington, D.C., and Sacramento. The Oakland group has remained stable, with a waiting list so long that a new Oakland hills chapter that launched this month has already been capped at the club's 20-member per-charter limit.
Growing up in East Oakland in the 1980s, White rode her bike to the Martin Luther King Jr. branch of the Oakland Public Library for weekly stock-up sessions.
"Reading has been my life since I was a kid," she said. "My mom said she read a lot when she was pregnant with me, and maybe it rubbed off."
Books such as Toni Morrison's "Sula," which she claims as "my own" and backs up her belief that "friendship between women can sometimes be more powerful than romantic love," is a cornerstone, White said.
"Talking about a book is about a sense of community," she said. "Finding that other people agree, or having the same "aha" moment, having a lot of laughter -- that's what I enjoy most."
BookTini members are all women, although the group holds one coed meeting each year. At national, regional and chapter retreats the women engage in sightseeing and what White calls "lots of extracurricular activities."
Oakland chapter co-leader Brigette Warren, of Hercules, said she has always been an avid reader, and she found her "club" in BookTini.
"I was looking for women to bond with over books," she said. "Women who are college-educated, have good values, go to church. Women who like to go to bars and like to drink. They were women like me."
Discussing a book's themes or why a character goes off on an inexplicable tangent allows for differing points of view, said Danielle Chapple of Richmond, the co-leader of the Oakland club. "It relates to life," she said. "I've changed my mind about a book after discussing it. It makes me embrace new ideas and be more open to the various backgrounds of people."
Every chapter is encouraged to participate in one outreach effort annually. In 2014, BookTini spearheaded an event at United for Success Academy, where they donated two books each to 120 sixth-grade students at the Oakland charter school. Last year, the group donated books and participated in an "Our Youth Matter" back-to-school event at Rainbow Recreation Center that provided supply-filled backpacks to approximately 300 children.
And in 2016, White says, new bookshelves and $2,000 worth of books will be installed at Black Sheep Barber Shop on High Street in Oakland and at an as-yet-to-be-selected barber shop in Richmond.
White estimates that the club has donated more than 1,000 books to kids in Oakland and Richmond to make books more accessible and to help foster an appreciation for reading in households where other issues often take priority.
"Many (people) are more concerned with survival, which makes reading a luxury," White said. "When you're hungry, or worried about the cost of everything around you, books are a very low priority."
White believes kids don't see reading as a step leading to opportunity and "a bigger life" unless it is demonstrated to them, and that view is a founding principle of BookTini outreach.
"Starting with kids, we can show them this is something that (they) need," she said.
As for the BookTini women, Naseema Simpson, of Brentwood, can boil down her reasons for joining the club with two simple statements: "I love to read. BookTini is a sisterhood."