A crowd reads during Quiet Nights: A Book Club at Mechanics’ Hall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The library at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland hummed with chatter. Patrons selected an orange from the snack table and claimed a comfortable armchair. April Davis slipped off her shoes. Keziah Weir claimed a spot at a long wooden table. Then Annie Leahy rang a tiny bell, and the entire room hushed.

Eighteen people opened their books and started to read.

This scene was not entirely unusual. This is a library, after all. But this was Quiet Nights, a new book club at Mechanics’ Hall. Sort of. There is no required title or structured discussion. Instead, everyone brings whatever they want to read and spends a silent hour doing just that. Weir described the time as almost sacred.

“I don’t ever end an hour of reading and regret it, and I end a lot of hours of other things and regret that,” Weir, 32, said. “It just feels like such a good reminder of a thing that is consistently life-sustaining.”

“It feels like going and taking your brain to the spa,” she added.

This meetup is part of a growing trend, popularized in part by the national Silent Book Club. Guinevere de la Mare and Laura Gluhanich started what became the first official chapter in San Francisco more than 10 years ago. They lived on the same street and occasionally met at a wine bar between their houses. When de la Mare lamented that her job and her toddler left her with little time to do the reading for her book club, the friends committed to finish a chapter at the bar before they could close their books and catch up.

The idea spread among their friends and on social media, and today, the Silent Book Club has more than 600 chapters around the world. But the concept didn’t truly explode until people started to emerge from the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, 400 new clubs were formed, including official chapters in Portland and Biddeford. And that doesn’t include unaffiliated but similar events such as Quiet Nights.

Want to socialize but don’t really remember how? Here’s an answer.

“I think there was a real hunger for what Silent Book Club offers, which is a structured, low pressure, quiet and calm way to go out and socialize,” said de la Mare, who now lives in Hawaii. “That really spoke to a lot of people who were trying to ease back into being out in the world.”


Bekah Robertson has never wanted to be in a book club before.

Robertson, 23, loves to read fantasy novels and works as a barista at Elements in Biddeford. When her coworkers decided to launch a Silent Book Club, she thought it sounded perfect for her.

“That is everything I like about regular book clubs and gets rid of all the things that I don’t like about book clubs,” she said. “I really like being around other book lovers, talking about other books, and reading in a group. I really hate being forced to read a specific book. I don’t have to force myself to read a book that everyone else is reading. I don’t have to share an opinion about a book that I don’t like to a bunch of strangers. It’s the best parts of a book club.”

Caitlin Swider, left, and Sara Thomas started a Silent Book Club chapter last spring at Elements, where they both work. Thomas is the events manager, and Swider is the general manager. The club was so successful that they now hold it twice a month. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

General manager Caitlin Swider and events manager Sara Thomas were looking for new programs for Elements when they heard about Silent Book Club on social media. It’s billed as happy hour for introverts. Could anything be more fitting for a combined bookstore and cafe? Seventeen people showed up for the first meeting. It has been so popular that Elements has expanded the event to twice a month – the second Sunday afternoon and last Thursday evening.

The event is flexible from club to club, but it usually follows a similar format. At Elements, the first half-hour is for mingling and chatting. The staff switches the music to something ambient to signal the start of reading. An hour later, the tunes become more upbeat. Some people put a bookmark in place and head home, but others stick around to socialize.

“Stereotypical book clubs, there’s a lot of pressure to have an opinion and speak out,” Swider said. “With this, if you want to talk, you talk.”

Thomas puts out a sign-in sheet where people can also write down what they are reading. Preferences range widely – on one recent night, the list included “I’m Glad My Mom Died” by Jennette McCurdy (a memoir), “Portrait of a Thief”  by Grace D. Li (a novel about a heist of Chinese art), “Prince Caspian” by C.S. Lewis (an installment of the fictional “Chronicles of Narnia”) and “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties” by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring (nonfiction) – but recommendations also move quickly through the group. Thomas picked up “Babel” by R.F. Kuang because she heard positive reviews from others on Thursday nights.

“It’s hard to find ways to meet new people and create a community,” Thomas said. “If you’re like, I like to read and that seems like an easy event to attend, it also becomes an easy way to meet new people and create community, to make your world a little bigger.”


OK, so, reading quietly is not exactly groundbreaking or new.

But it can take a little discipline. Marjorie Moore reads all the time – in her Munjoy Hill art studio, after dinner at her Portland home – but even she has titles that have been gathering dust.

Marjorie Moore, of Portland, brought a book she’s been meaning to read “for decades” to Quiet Nights at Mechanics’ Hall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

So when she attended her first Quiet Night at Mechanics’ Hall, Moore brought a book she had been trying to read “for decades,” she said: “On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection” by Susan Stewart. An hour later, she found herself two chapters deep with a greater understanding than she had gleaned on previous attempts.

“It brings back the concept of when I was in school and you’re in a library and it’s quiet, and all you really hear are chairs moving or books being put down on a table,” Moore, 79, said. “I think it gives people the incentive to think about what they’re doing and focus, in the camaraderie of other people.”

Annie Leahy, executive director of Mechanics’ Hall, a communal gathering space on Congress Street, said that camaraderie was the whole idea behind Quiet Nights. Daylight saving time was ending, and days were getting shorter.. The team was looking for events that could combat the isolation of winter, and a volunteer mentioned that a friend had attended a silent reading event in another city. Quiet Nights is free to Mechanics’ Hall members and $10 for everyone else, and the first one sold out 25 spots within three days.

“That time to pause, we don’t often allow ourselves enough of that,” Leahy said. “I love to read, and I run an organization with a library, and I have such a hard time carving out that time for myself. In some ways, we have created an opportunity for people to claim an hour of time.”

Weir is a senior editor at Vanity Fair and launched her novel “The Mythmakers” at Mechanics’ Hall last year. She lives in South Portland and heard about Quiet Nights via the organization’s email newsletter. She often reads and writes in libraries and bookstores, but she liked that this event was at night but not at a bar.

“Everybody is really just sitting and reading,” she said. “Nobody is on laptops, and nobody is on their phones. It just feels like a very unique experience. It feels like a space of worship.”

April Davis, of South Portland, reads during Quiet Nights: A Book Club at Mechanics’ Hall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Davis, 38, has already reserved a spot in Quiet Nights for every Monday in the foreseeable future. One week this month, she read “Tributaries: Essays from Woods and Waters,” a memoir by her friend Ryan Brod. She felt vulnerable at first because the book was making her both laugh and cry.

“Books do that,” she said. “It’s nice to share that space and be around others who might be tearing up or giggling too. If you’re with people who are in that event, they get it.”


The living room at the Blind Tiger guest house on Danforth Street in Portland is made for reading.

The fire is warm. The couches are plush. The ambiance is cozy.

“It’s definitely a treat,” Kate Hassett, 37, said. “I live in a little apartment, and it’s fun to go to this giant boutique inn and feel fancy for a couple hours.”

Tammara Croman, the general manager, was looking for events that would open the guest house to locals, not just visitors. She heard about the concept on social media, contacted the national Silent Book Club to list the Blind Tiger chapter on its online database, and hosted the first free event in October.

She felt the need for community spaces is even greater in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were so separated for years, and I think people had a hard time reconnecting with those they loved, let alone new people,” Croman said. “To be able to help facilitate a space where people from different neighborhoods, different walks of life find a common interest, it’s a really cool thing.”

Mariah James, of Portland, reads during Silent Book Club at Blind Tiger Guest House and Gathering Space Wednesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Some months have drawn 10 or more people, but the expansive rooms have plenty of soft seats. Hassett lives in the neighborhood and works as a licensed clinical social worker at Maine Medical Center, and she first heard about the book club on Instagram. She has now attended multiple times, on her own and with friends. Once, the attendees pitched in money for a bottle of wine from a nearby shop. Hassett has set a goal to read a different book on each visit to the Blind Tiger, and she said that plan has motivated her to read more between meetings as well.

“Reading is such an individual thing, but there’s such a community of readers and writers in this area,” she said. “It keeps me connected. … I’ve been seeking more communal things since the pandemic, and it took some time to warm up again.”

On a recent Wednesday evening, five people wandered into the Blind Tiger to read. They smiled and nodded to each other, shedding coats and selecting a comfortable chair.

Soon, the only sound was the fire crackling – and pages turning.

Comments are no longer available on this story