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Swapping notes: the Brussels Bookswappers Club
Brit Karen Garside runs the Brussels Bookswappers Club
How did you get involved with the Bookswappers?
A neighbour told me about the Brussels Bookswappers Club, which at that time was meeting in a smoky city centre pub. I went with her to a meeting in 2009 and thought how nice it would be to come regularly. I later heard the club was about to fold and that this would be the last chance to collect books as the venue was up for sale – a problem that has faced the club on several occasions! I asked if anyone else could take the club on and was told I was more than welcome to try. Not one to shy away from a challenge, I found a cafe near where I live that gave use of its ground-floor restaurant. The club has been going from strength to strength ever since.
We had another close shave last year when I got an email from the restaurant telling me I had to remove all the books in a couple of days as the place was up for sale! I felt totally deflated that all the positive energy invested in the club seemed to be for nothing. Then I happened across the new owner. I explained the club to him, and though he was a bit doubtful we agreed on the dates when we could use the restaurant, which reopened under a new name – Le Chapelier Fou (Mad Hatter) – with a new look and new food. In May we had a memorable relaunch party. The sun was out, the terrace was full of Bookswappers, the restaurant was brimming with diners, the bar was packed and friends entertained us with Celtic folk music. I’m planning our third birthday party on May 29.
What kind of people join the club?
There’s no such thing as an average night – we have anything between 40 and 80 people. English remains the lingua franca for a lot of members but you can usually hear (and practise) French, German, Dutch, Italian, Swedish and Polish. Last Christmas I organised a separate Bookswap for families with children and a party for adults and older kids. I persuaded the owners of the restaurant to stay open during the afternoon and provide an early supper. Children (accompanied by an adult) can now come along to a special Bookswap but since the books for the evening are already on display, parents, grandparents or au pairs can look for something new to read too. The feedback is positive – a lot of kids from Belgian schools tend to do extracurricular activities on a Wednesday afternoon but they can pop along to the Bookswappers before or after. Likewise kids at international schools can come at the end of the day with their parents. Now we’re open throughout the afternoon some regulars come straight after work, browse for books and then meet a friend for a drink or bite to eat.
What is the secret of the group’s success?
Very often the international community tends to stick together in a sort of ghetto – here at the Bookswappers we all intermingle and get on. Although I’m British, most of my friends have traditionally been Belgian, so the club provides an ideal opportunity to meet other nationalities and for my daughter to make friends with English-speaking kids her own age as she attends a Belgian school. I’ve heard of other members who are learning French or Dutch who visit the children’s section for something simple to practise with! And the location and friendly staff really make it a fun place to come. I’ve made some real friends through the Bookswappers and always make a point of staying for a meal and chat. Like a good book that you can’t put down, the club is compulsive!
Upcoming Bookswaps: May 29 (birthday party), June 26, July 27, August 28, September 25
Interview by Sally Tipper