While walking down West Johnson Street on a Thursday evening, you’d expect to find a couple early revelers, some buses and maybe a few pregame parties. But every month, something special takes place there, and people are starting to pay attention.
An innocuous loft resides on the corner of Bassett and Johnson that hosts one of Madison’s most up-and-coming social event: The Book Swap.
The venue – aptly dubbed “The Attic” – provides a different sort of party on the third Thursday of every month. Instead of the routine bangers so common on campus, The Book Swap offers an interesting new way to interact with people.
“I wanted to start another kind of theme party,” Book Swap founder Nisha Pai said. “You come with a book, any kind, any number, and trade yours for someone else’s.”
Pai started Madison’s Book Swap this year after going to a similar party in Paris. “Madison has a lot of classy events,” Pai said. “But there wasn’t anything that was oriented toward younger people.” The original book clubs took place at exclusive venues that rarely let in people who couldn’t afford a Hugo Boss suit.
The Madison version keeps its classy roots (members are encouraged to dress up) but maintains a homey, grass-roots atmosphere that welcomes any guests.
“I want people to expect to meet new people and get a good book out of it,” Pai said.
“Some people come and they just want to party, which is OK. But there are also a lot of interesting conversations that start when people bring up their books and try to tell others why they should read it.”
Book Swaps occur in “The Attic,” the appropriate title Pai has given to the top level of her college apartment.
The space is big enough to fit maybe four sedans side to side. The tight space merely adds to the feeling of community that permeates the events. Adding further to the ambiance at swaps are Christmas lights, disco balls and a live jazz band.
“We usually get around 30 or 40 people up there,” Pai said.
Many of the conversations start with people seeing books they like and trying to make the case that their book is worth the other.
Someone who brings, say, an old copy of Cosmo, will have to practice expert seduction to get that copy of “American Psycho” he has always wanted. It is all about trust and seduction.
Guests at The Book Swap have brought works ranging from thick tomes on etiquette to pop-up books to standard literary classics.
“Someone traded me ‘Lolita’ at one,” Pai said, “and an Icelandic book called ‘The Pets.’”
People often bring wine to share at the events in order to help loosen the inhibitions that often prevent quality intellectual discourse. Often, there will be a couple boxes of wine at The Attic in addition to an array of bottles donated by guests for the attendants’ imbibing pleasure.
The hardest donation for Book Swap to get was free entertainment.
“I knew I needed a live band for [The Book Swap] to truly be classy,” Pai said, “but everyone wanted lots of money.”
“It was hard getting a live band to come at first. I posted fliers asking for a three- or four-piece jazz band, but I never got any response. I wanted them to play just for the experience,” Pai said of her struggle.
“I ended up posting in Reddit’s Madison board pleading for someone to help out. In a week or two I got an email from a local band called Studio B,” Pai said.
Studio B turned out to be a smashing success and is now the resident band at The Attic’s events.
The Book Swap has gone from a foreign enterprise to Madison’s newest cultural hot spot. Its future holds plenty more parties where guests can trade books and drink wine in the classy locale they have all been waiting for.
The next installment of The Attic’s Book Swap series is next Thursday, Feb. 23 from 7 to 11 p.m. at 221 N. Basset Street. Hosts encourage guests to dress nicely and bring a book to trade. Studio B performs at The Dragon Fly Lounge March 3