Novel idea for Belgium’s book-loving expatriates
Once a month they come, the clusters of expatriates weighed down with their bulging bags of crack-spined Ian Rankins and page-tortured Ian McEwans, traversing the rain-polished streets of Belgium in search of the Brussels BookSwappers Club.
It’s not Oprah, it’s not Richard and Judy (only in their dreams could these hosts aspire to such a dedicated following) but as books clubs go, it’s not a bad place to meet for a bracing Belgian beer and the opportunity to stock up with a brutal Jeffery Deaver, a comprehensive 501 German Verbs or a five-year-old Routard Guide de Voyage Tunisie.
The concept is as straightforward as a Martina Cole thriller. You bring a carrier bag of books and swap them for the same number. For free. No fee. The first time I attended, I released a Carl Hiaasen and a Minette Walters to run free among the acres of Maeve Binchys and Stephen Kings. In return I bagged a plump Bonfire of the Vanities and a tasty Clive James autobiography.
The club was formed by a handful of book lovers six years ago. Today there are around 350 members and a new bigger venue above The Duke pub in the fashionable area of Chatelain. “Good contemporary fiction is particularly popular and sometimes it can get a little bit like a Harrods sale with a lot of pointy elbows,” laughs one of the organisers Alison Grayson. “But everyone here is a book lover so there is an instant shared interest and the atmosphere is very good natured, there is no book snobbery.”
Indeed. During my second visit as the heavy glasses of Hoegaarden and dry house whites hovered over the Jeffery Archers and Anne Rices, the murmur of conversation was as much about new school terms and weekend plans as Terry Pratchett sub plots and broken promises to read Crime and Punishment.
David Humphreys, another of the original club members, estimates that membership ranges in age from 19 to 84 from around 20 different countries. English may not be the first language of many but book swapping is the Esperanto of choice at room above The Duke. “The club gives you a chance to try new authors that perhaps you would not normally take a risk on,” says Grayson. “It also offers a great chance to stock up on books for free rather than pay imported book shop prices.”
Every month there are four sections. Trestle tables wheeze under the weight of fiction, a heavily laden window supports non-fiction and a sparse shelf contains foreign language books including, last time I looked, a lonely-looking De Peetvader by Mario Puzo. In a corner is a table of ‘tracker books’. Here favourite books can be deposited and monitored by register so if you want to know which bedside table is currently supporting your favourite Haruki Murakami, you know who to call.
This evening the books are monitored by Tiffany Fliss, a New Yorker who has lived abroad for 20 years. “Yes of course we get a lot of chick lit, but mainly it’s the McEwans, the Roths, Booker prize nominees or winners,” she says. “Anything unusual? You mean like pornography? No. Although I do remember an anthology of erotic short stories; they were very good.”
Naturally, the Brussels BookSwappers Club has an offshoot reading group of approximately 30 enthusiasts. One of the organisers Jeanette De Prins says that although membership is inevitably transient, just like any other expatriate group, one constant is fierce debate. “Oh yes, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, that was a particularly heated discussion,” she says. “And The Kite Runner. I remember Khaled Hosseini dividing opinion.” September’s novel of choice is Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, a tale of confused sexual identity. It certainly beats staying in with the BBC World Service.
By 9.30pm the crowds are dwindling. A few members are sitting outside at the bar’s pavement tables enjoying a rare balmy Brussels evening. Upstairs, 84-year-old Ben Blanfield chats about reading a recent Frank McCourt while books are being packed into boxes and stored for next month. Exhausted copies of novels – “a lot of Mills & Boon and a seemingly never-ending supply of Maeve Binchy” – are whisked way to be sold by the yard for local charities.
Long-term club member Peter Clayton is nursing a biography of Leslie Philips. Last month he swapped for a biography of Christopher Lee (“Fascinating story, his mother was a contessa”). Clayton says he never seems to find the time to read these days, but for him the club’s appeal is social. “Well I love books and I love beer. To have a small library of my own over a pub is my idea of heaven.”