Attention booklovers, because here is Sheffield’s newest, and best kept secret. Part old-school reading circle and part treasure hunt, welcome to the Hidden Book Club. Set up at the beginning of summer 2012, Helen and Victoria Turnton began the phenomenon winning the hearts of bibliophiles across the city.
The rules are simple: every Sunday, a book is hidden somewhere around Sheffield city centre. The location is announced via the Hidden Book Club’s Facebook group and people can visit to swap books until midnight.
The location could be anywhere; in a bar, cafe or hidden somewhere in a public space. Anybody can turn up and take the book from this location, leaving another book of their choice in its place. It is totally free, anyone can take part and books can be fact or fiction and in any condition. Through the club you can discover a new favourite book and a new favourite place in Sheffield.
The joy of the club is in its mystery and secrecy. As there is no way of knowing what you get until you get there, you could turn up and find a gem of literature that you never would have come across if you were perusing a library or browsing in a book shop alone.
Completely opposing the fact that the bestseller charts and most discussions about books in recent months have been dominated by a particular sadomasochistic trilogy, the founders of the club point out the fact that the members have “very varied tastes”. This increases the variety and your chances of stumbling across something completely new. And while there is no denying the storming popularity of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon, something a little different might be refreshing.
Feedback from members of the Hidden Book Club and discoveries of books are related and discussed on their Facebook page, where you can find out “who picked up the book you left and what they thought of it”. Most comments on the page are extremely positive, gleaming with excitement for what books they will be able to find in the secret location. There are, however, some book fans in distressing dilemmas, wondering which books of theirs they will be able to give up in the exchange. A harrowing choice.
Running a book club in the middle of the city centre does have its perils, as the Turntons describe a couple of instances where members of the general public unaware of the club have come across books in public spaces and not replaced them. “Not that you can blame them for that! If I found an interesting looking book hidden in a park or up a tree I’d probably do the same!”
A fine line between club membership and theft, since the club’s early days this problem has begun to be remedied, by pinning notes to the covers of the books in the hope that people will learn why the book is there, rather than just taking the book away.
The Hidden Book Club, despite some risk of loss of books and the rise of the e-reader has been extraordinarily successful since its inception: it is gaining new members online almost every day. The immediacy of the Book Club’s success must be down to just why people love borrowing books.
Fervent book lovers themselves, the club was started by Helen Turnton and Vicky volunteered soon after to help keep the organization running. Although neither of them have a formal background in literature both have a zealous relationship with books.
“We can literally spend hours in bookshops and we both have boxes of books at home. We buy new books before we’ve even finished the ones that we are reading.It’s great when someone feels the same way about a story as you do. The Hidden Book Club just sort of progressed from there”.
Better still, add to that the mystery and excitement of not knowing what book you will find. What you get feels like “taking part in a Famous Five adventure”, according to one member of the Hidden Book Club.
Whether you come across Enid Blyton or contemporary crime fiction, you are guaranteed to find something somebody else has read and enjoyed, and passed on to you.
Or, perhaps if the weekly treasure hunt isn’t quite your style, there are plenty of other book clubs to sink your teeth into across Sheffield. The University of Sheffield has a book club society that meets every three weeks to “discuss, spew vitriol, or sing the praises of the book we just read”. Additionally, for the bookworm with a sweet-tooth, the delectable Cocoa cafe on Ecclesall Road runs a book club monthly – and their hot chocolate is to die for.
Clearly, the art of curling up with a book and then sharing it is not a thing of a past, yet the brains behind The Hidden Book Club point out that Sheffield Library is under the threat of closure, and how it makes “taking part in book clubs like this seem even more important”.
Another aspect affecting the fate of the printed book as we know it is the digital version, stamping its monstrous feet. In 2009, e-book sales overtook print ones for the first time and since then, the future of the book in print has looked a bit precarious. Kindles and e-readers can provide instantaneous access to whatever book you can think of, but The Hidden Book Club offers something which reading from a screen can never parallel.
“I guess we’re both [Helen and Victoria Turnton] old fashioned in this respect … I love actually owning something tangible. Although I’d have a lot more space in my house if I put all of my books on a Kindle I’d really miss not having them around.”
Books in print, particularly second hand, are also affordable which makes sharing and lending them to friends and clubs much easier. For second hand books in Sheffield try charity shops or Rare and Racy on Division Street.
The Off The Shelf Festival runs from October 13 to November 3 and The Hidden Book Club is getting involved. Off The Shelf is a Sheffield based festival of words and is running events, workshops, poetry and storytelling events.
Every Sunday throughout the duration of the festival the hidden location of the book will be in venues already running Off The Shelf events. The Hidden Book Club founders hope this will “encourage more people with an interest in books and literature to get involved in the club. It’s also a good way for people taking part in the Hidden Book Club to perhaps stumble across an Off The Shelf event they might like!”
There is hope yet for bookworms. Clubs and festivals live on, spreading the joy of literature and there are plenty of ways for you to get involved.
Find BookSoc on the University website, search ‘The Hidden Book Club’ or befriend Cocoa Sheffield on Facebook to stay updated with their respective events. Visit http://www.offtheshelf.org.uk for more information, programmes and tickets. And if that doesn’t keep the inner book worm satisfied, visit your local library. It misses you.