Book club opens next chapter after 30 years

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
For the Eagle | September 16, 2020 2:00 AM

The members of the Ladies Afternoon Reading Club in Bigfork have read hundreds of books throughout the group’s 30-year run, but they’ll have to read on to discover the next chapters of their own story.

LARC has been continuously meeting once a month since around the late 1980s. Through location changes, the addition and subtraction of various members, and even a pandemic, the Bigfork bibliophiles have kept the pages turning for approximately three decades.

“It’s been a long time since then,” said Jean Adams, one of the four consistent current members who has kept the club alive in the past few years, even meeting at outdoor picnic tables when the COVID-19 outbreak first shut down public gatherings.

“The book club has changed quite a bit,” she added. “We have just done our best to keep it going because we just enjoy the strange things that there are out there to read.”

Though she’s made it to just about every monthly meeting since 2008, Adams wasn’t around when LARC first coalesced into a formal book club, sometime around the late 1980s or late 1990s, according to the group’s more long-standing members.

But Regina Browne was there from the start. Now in her eighties, she still goes to occasional meetings on a less regular basis. Browne and her friends Betty Reed and Trish Tavenner—the former owner of a bookstore on Electric Avenue, now Electric Avenue gifts—are generally considered the founders of LARC.

The trio of energetic professionals decided to form LARC to give themselves one more thing to do—they saw reading not as a casual pastime, but as an active way to engage with their community and the world around them.

They fashioned the group after a fictional organization described in the book “...And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer.

Browne got into LARC after her retirement from a career in real estate, and she said the group attracted a breed of like-minded women who wanted to add another activity into their busy schedules, along with work or volunteering.

“These women were organizers and rabble rousers,” Browne said. “These were all women who were very strong in their beliefs about things, who lived full lives, lives that were enriched. They wanted to do something. They wanted to keep doing things.”

“We’re all very opinionated old ladies. We don’t have too much fear of expressing our opinions,” she added.

The original tenets of LARC made room for those kinds of opinions to be shared without ruffling any feathers.

Browne explained the club was designed to be an informal, open space for women to share their experiences on books and life. Members have no responsibility to prepare a lengthy lecture to deliver on an assigned book; they don’t even have to read each book to be able to share a related insight from their own lives or something else they have read.

“We were too mature for that,” Browne said.

That maturity helped create a respectful environment where diverse ideas were not only tolerated, but celebrated.

“There were never any fights or arguments…nobody went away mad,” Browne remembered. “Everybody recognized that we may have different views. This was a group of women who wanted to share things, who respected each other, who liked each other, who appreciated what the other person had to say.”

Adams said she was amazed the first time she walked into a LARC meeting to see twenty women sharing wildly different viewpoints on literature and life.

But changes from within and outside the group have made that kind of open dialogue less feasible now, she lamented.

“Some of that original character has been lost,” Adams said. “It’s kind of a shame.”

The group dynamic has shifted, she said, because the political landscape has evolved and so, too, has the Bigfork community. Whereas LARC used to hold vivacious, open meetings on Electric Avenue that attracted tourists passing by to stop in and listen, the group now meets in relative seclusion in the library at Bethany Lutheran Church.

“We’re so community-based,” said Adams. “As our group got smaller, so did the people who knew about us.”

Though founding members like Browne can still be spotted at some of the meetings, most of the ladies themselves have changed over the 30-year lifespan of LARC. Some former members have moved away, others have stopped commuting from Kalispell, Polson and other distant locations, and many have passed away. The group now consists of members mostly in their 80s, though the youngest active member is in her 40s.

But the core membership hasn’t closed the book on LARC. They continue to meet at 2 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month, adapting to the changing circumstances and seeking out Montana women authors whenever possible to add to their apparently-interminable reading list.

Adams said she’s hopeful that LARC will be able to bring in new readers to keep the group from soon becoming a part of Bigfork’s history.

“It’s sad because it has survived for such a long time,” she said. “It has been an exciting experience for me and I’m sorry that it might disappear.”

The Ladies Afternoon Reading Club is open to new members. Meetings are held at 2 p.m., the first Wednesday of every month, in the Bethany Lutheran Church library at 8559 MT Highway 35, Bigfork, MT 59912. Those interested in joining can call Jean Adams at 406-837-0700.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at (406)-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.