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A Novel Experience: Zebulon, GA

Living Room Conversations in One Word: “Joy”

A Novel Experience, Zebulon, GA  

Written April 2019

“Our first purpose was to increase togetherness and tolerance, and from that, of course, we hope it will influence loyalty and business. Plus, we were flat-out curious to see what would happen.”

– Christine ‘Chris’ Curry, co-owner, A Novel Experience 

For the 1,200 residents of rural Zebulon, GA, A Novel Experience bookstore has long been a landmark, community hub, and, as  one customer described it, “a port in the storm.” With its central location near the historic Pike County Courthouse  and its policy that “anyone can join any conversation,” A Novel Experience is the perfect host for a participatory, cross-partisan activity like Living Room Conversations. A Novel Experience’s co-owners Christine ‘Chris’ Curry and Karen Lacey have a long-standing commitment to the community and have played host to an annual photography exhibit, art shows, and four active book clubs. The book clubs help reinforce the small business’s inclusive vibe. From Drop-in, Guilt-free Book Club, to the Brown Bag Book Club, to Classics Book Club, to The Nerd Herd, there is something for everyone at A Novel Experience. 

Likewise, the bookstore’s approach to Living Room Conversations has emphasized engagement and inclusiveness. Since 2018, A Novel Experience has set aside the last Sunday of each month, at 3 pm, for a group of stalwart Living Room Conversationalists. Ten to thirteen participants have explored topics ranging from Guns & Responsibility to the Race Series. Chris shares the connection she sees between a bookstore and Living Room Conversations: “We’re readers and we value community and Living Room Conversations brings us together. Anyone can join any conversation. This is what we want to encourage.” 

Chris discovered Living Room Conversations in the independent bookstore blog, Shelf Awareness, and became intrigued by its potential as a tool for marketing and mission. She found herself on the Living Room Conversations website, quickly downloaded the guide, and within a month, she’d hosted her first conversation. Conversations tend to run about one hour and fifteen minutes, with the Living Room Conversations structure and agreements both followed and appreciated. Post-conversation refreshments offer an intentional social time to wind down and close each Living Room Conversation. Chris describes, walking away just exhilarated and laughing. It felt like fun. People brought food so they ate and just talked at the end, not wanting to leave.” Another participant described Living Room Conversations at A Novel Experience with one word: “joy.” 

Marketing the Living Room Conversations through the A Novel Experience’s online newsletter, Chris then put extra effort into ensuring a mix of people with conservative and liberal views would feel comfortable attending. Her recruitment focused on former military and conservative customers whom she knew would not see Living Room Conversations as an attempt to “convert them to the liberal agenda.” The communities surrounding A Novel Experience lean heavily Republican and Christian, making opportunities for conversing across different political and religious experiences rare and potentially fraught. 

However, the community’s trust in Chris encouraged participation. Her agile facilitation coupled with the Living Room Conversations model and agreements gave the experience structure and safety. As one participant suggests, “I have gotten to know conservative folks and become friends. Though we don’t necessarily agree, I have come to understand their perspectives more, as a result of the Living Room Conversations model and talking about issues together. (In other settings), people know I’m progressive but don’t bring it up or talk about issues because it would be uncomfortable. During a Living Room Conversation, people really listen.” 

Chris’s background as a psychotherapist has helped her to shepherd the group. Her use of therapeutic techniques like “mirroring” and “validating” have proven valuable as conversations surface personal experiences and emotions. Participants trust her to follow through on the Living Room Conversations’ promise to facilitate connection between people, despite their differences, and even identify areas of common ground and shared understanding. One participant described Chris this way, “[She] is accepting of all people, she owns that business, anyone who she comes into contact with, she assumes, is a friend.  The woman works hard. She has created an oasis … a place where I can feel comfortable all the time, consistently, and others feel the same way.” 

Lightheartedness and humor, too, are essential tools in Chris’s hosting kit. During the first Living Room Conversations on Guns and Responsibility, she knew participants from this rural Georgia county were likely to have strong feelings. As they sat down in the bookstore’s comfy seating area, Chris asked anyone who was “carrying” to place their guns on the coffee table. Three of the 11 participants took the holstered revolvers out and put them down. After a moment of shocked silence, especially among those who favored more restrictive gun laws, everyone began to laugh. With the tension broken, a respectful conversation ensued. One participant recalled, “Later on, someone said he didn’t own or want to own a gun because he knew he had a temper and didn’t trust himself with a gun. A conservative gun owner responded, saying he respected that, and ‘would want to be in a foxhole’ with a careful person like him.” 

Participants have become loyal to the Living Room Conversations group and look forward to it each month. Eighty percent of the group are repeat participants, lending the group the sense that they were growing and improving their Living Room Conversations practice together, over time. Many have found opportunities to practice their listening-to- understand-skills elsewhere: “I’m more lenient toward people’s beliefs. I will listen more, whereas before I was quick to judge people who had different beliefs.  I’m more interested in people’s backgrounds and stories as reasons for why they believe what they do. It has caused me to start asking Living Room Conversations-like questions whereas before I would just start arguing. I want to know the person more before I start debating. I try not to push too many buttons too quickly.” Both Chris and the participants are looking to invite younger and more racially diverse participants. Most regulars are over the age of 45. A participant remarked, “The older folks are curious about younger people’s perspectives.” 

In the meantime, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic closures, the Zebulon group has ventured online. Like many of us, Chris is eager to return to the pre-COVID face-to-face gatherings; she recognizes the online version may have the benefit of achieving more diverse participation or encouraging participants to try it out virtually before committing to a face-to-face experience. 

Beyond individual change and feelings of joy and exhilaration, communities of practice like the one growing in Zebulon offer one pathway, not a magic wand, but one pathway toward healing and understanding across differences. As society grapples with the harm and violence of systemic racism, with the intransigence of rigid political divides, and with a pandemic disproportionately affecting those with the least resources, we find in Zebulon a community actively practicing more productive ways to engage. Chris describes it this way, “We have learned to listen better, listen without anticipating the next thing. The word about Living Room Conversations is getting out: we are giving people a forum to learn about other people.” 

Photo Credit: Facebook- A Novel Experience. (n.d.). https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=493859596260163&set=a.493859566260166 

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