Episode 41: An Introverted Bookworm Builds Community

Hear from a Meetup organizer with a simple but brilliant concept for her book club: hosting fun adventures based on the books that her group reads.

An Introverted Bookworm Builds Community - Guest Audrey Heller with a globe

Audrey Heller is the founder of The Novel Tourists of Philadelphia, a Meetup book club for adventurers. She attended her first-ever Meetup event one lonely New Year’s Day and had an incredibly heartwarming experience. Ten years later, when she moved to Philadelphia and “literally did not know anybody,” she returned to Meetup—this time as an organizer. Her idea was simple, but brilliant: hosting fun explorations inspired by the books you’re reading. She expected a handful of people to join, but in just one month, her Meetup group had 200 members! Audrey and David give advice for future book club organizers, chat about the importance of building connections between people of all ages, and discuss what happiness looks like. 

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Show Notes

Before we get into this episode, I have something important to share. Check out my new book, Decide and Conquer, to get to know my story at Meetup. The hardest thing about community leadership is making tough decisions when the stakes are high. They were never higher than when Meetup was owned and sold by WeWork. In my new book, Decide and Conquer, I will walk you through a counterintuitive framework for decision-making and the epic journey of Meetup’s surprising survival. Good leaders deliberate. Great leaders decide. Order my book today by visiting DecideAndConquerBook.com or anywhere books are sold. I think you will like it. 

Welcome. We are talking to Audrey Heller, the member and organizer of a Meetup group called The Novel Tourists of Philadelphia. If you think that that is a novel idea, then wait until you read this episode. Hello, Audrey Heller. I am so glad you are here. Philly is a great city. It is underappreciated by so many people because of its proximity to New York and Washington DC. I lived in Philadelphia for six years. I absolutely loved touring and going all around the city. Not enough people appreciate it.

We are talking to Meetup member turned Meetup organizer, Audrey Heller, who runs the very creative named group, The Novel Tourists of Philadelphia. You are going to find out why it is called that. I could explain it, but who wants to hear from me? Audrey, tell us a little bit about what the group does and let’s go from there.

I moved to Philadelphia a few years ago. I wanted to explore this city that I did not know anything about, although I lived two hours away from it most of my life. I just knew the Liberty Bell and that is about it. I did not know anybody though. I thought, “Maybe I will start a meetup group.” I also liked to read and so I thought, “Maybe I will start a book club but we will go and do fun things that are inspired by the book that we are reading.” That is how The Novel Tourists of Philadelphia got started.

I love the name. It is a great double entendre, the word novel. Have you seen that used before at Meetup or that was your own creation?

I created it. I wanted something that was a little bit about books and also new things that we are exploring. Exactly like you picked up, it is meant to mean both.

When it first started, how was the reception in the beginning? Was it hard to get people? Did it take a while or did it have many people come right from the start? Tell us about how that has worked.

It was exciting because I started on January 1st, 2019.

It sounds like a New Year’s resolution to me.

It was. It was fun. I had never created a Meetup group before. I followed all the instructions and I hit submit or whatever it is that you do. I thought, “I wonder if anyone is going to even see this,” or people are laying around on New Year’s Day. People started to join. I was like, “Look at all these people.” It is so fun. It was like being at a casino and you are winning. People kept joining. I was like, “There are lots of people that like to read and do stuff.” It was exciting.

It’s that little hit of dopamine every single time. When someone joins, “I got another one.” I think that is a great example except it’s a lot better than gambling at a casino. By the end of the month, did you have 10 people or 20 people? How many people were in the group?

There were 200 people at the end of the month. It was crazy.

Do you think they joined more because of the book-reading part or the traveling around part or just the novelty of the novelty?

I think most of the people are all readers. I think when they are looking for a book club, they found that and said, “I want to go do that.” I have people that are members that have been to every event that I have done that has started from the beginning. They are trying to convince me to do a members-only so they can exclusively join before the others can join.

What was the first event that you did?

Some people think they have a million and one things to do, so they do not have the time to sit and read.

The very first one, The Life List was the name of the book. It was a book where someone had to fulfill all these things that were on her childhood life list, also known as bucket lists that her mother had found in her trashcan when she was in eighth grade. When her mother passed away, in order for the daughter to get her inheritance, she had to fulfill everything that was on her life list from when she was in eighth grade. One of the things that she had said she wanted to do was to do an impromptu on a big stage, so went to an impromptu show.

Is that story fiction or is it nonfiction?

Fiction.

That is a great bonding. Typically, when you do something, do you have food before or food after? Is that an important part of getting together or is it about the event?

It depends. For that one, there was no food component to it. I had never organized a Meetup group and I have never been to this theater either. I was like, “Can we arrange some chairs right here in the lobby and hang out and talk about this book for a little bit?” They were like, “Sure.” We had a book discussion while we were waiting for the actual show to start. Naturally, people wanted to hang out longer after the event.

We would go to a restaurant afterwards. About half or three-quarters of the people that went to the event would also want to stay later. Food is one of those things that I try and create more events because there are only so many weekends. I created the foodie fiction series. Once a month, we do just a restaurant and book discussion. It’s more like a traditional book club. It is funny because there are different groups within the group. If one of them sees it, they will message each other and say, “Audrey just put on a new event.”

You do not have to then do all the marketing yourself. You have this viral group of people who are super engaged. Sometimes they want to make sure other people hear about it because people miss an email or a notification. You have all these individuals who are helping you to drive engagement, which is alerting for Meetup organizers. How can you get other people in your group to step up, lead, market, and communicate about what is going on outside of all the burden of just being yourself? That is one learning.

The second learning I have from your story is you need to be adaptable. You showed up in this thing like, “Let’s get a circle of chairs together,” because elsewhere, you’re never going to end up talking about the book. Part of the club is to do that. Any challenges that you have had in an event that you are open to sharing. It is okay to have challenges because you have had a lot of events. It is impossible not to have some challenges. Tell me about something that may have happened at one point in time, a little hiccup perhaps, and how you handled it.

There is a core group of people and they look out for me, which is great. They all are trying to help me. I have some that will be counting numbers for me and keeping track of where people are. We did kayaking one time. What I am excited about is that so many people have told me that this group has taken them out of their comfort zone and had them do things that they never would have done before and they would not have felt comfortable doing.

We have a group member who did not have any skill at kayaking whatsoever. She was not sure she could even do it. She was nervous about it, but she tried. There was another group member that stayed with her the whole time to make sure that she got there. He was so great, “You can do this.” Without me even asking, he was keeping the back of the line there to make sure that we did not lose anybody. By the time she was done, she was like a pro paddler.

First of all, her confidence is through the roof. My belief is that when people get confidence in one thing, that confidence will oftentimes translate into other aspects of life. For you, you seem like a wonderfully competent person in a great way. How has being a Meetup organizer impacted you? There are the relationships that you have built, which are incredibly valuable. As a person, do you feel like it has impacted you in certain ways?

I did not know anybody when I moved to Philadelphia. Where I work is a great work environment, but a lot of people live in the suburbs. They do not live in the city. I do not hang out with anybody from work. I know you said that you feel like I am a confident person, but I am an introvert. I tell people that all the time and nobody believes me.

The definition of an introvert is not someone who is uncomfortable being around people. It is where you get your energy from. If you are a person that gets her energy from reading books, which I would not be surprised if you did, knowing that you run a book club, it makes sense.

I do more listening than reading.

KCM 41 | Building Community
The Life List: A Novel

Why?

I have a million and one things to do. I do not have the time to sit and read.

While you are in your car or taking a walk, you will be listening.

My house has never been cleaner since I discovered audiobooks. If the book is really good, I do not want to stop listening. I just keep cleaning. I am far more comfortable leading a group than I am being a member of a group. I am cognizant of the fact that it is hard to walk into a place or a situation where you do not know anybody. That is why I think this group is so successful because if I am going to go to a hiking club and go on a hike, I would be like, “What am I going to talk about?”

I know that if there is a book involved, I can just turn to the person next to me and be like, “What did you think of that scene where the person stabbed the other person and this just happened?” All of a sudden, there is a natural flow of conversation. The door is open to start talking. I think that is where a lot of people feel like there is a real connection with each other because they have that.

It makes me think of a scene from some movie that I saw in the ‘80s where an awkward boy is going on one of their first dates and writes notes down on his hand about what topics to give during a date. It makes you feel a little more comfortable to have those notes on your date. I never did that, knowing my awkwardness in my earlier years. The book gives you these set topics. You could easily talk about different characters in the book.

We then segue into the parts about your own life, and how you can have conversations about anything. It has been a lot of fun. As an organizer, I like organizing things. I also like watching the interactions between other people. I tend to go over if someone is not talking to someone. I will try and make sure I introduce them. I learned that from another Meetup organizer.

Do you mind sharing the name of the Meetup organizer?

I have no idea who they are.

What happened? What did the person do?

It was the very first Meetup event I had ever gone to. It was a long time ago. I was in Harrisburg. I just finished law school. All of my friends moved because they all went back to wherever they come from. I suddenly found myself as a single mom, with no friends, and my kids went with their dad on New Year’s Day, ironically. I did not have anything to do. I was sad because it was the first time I was without them. I had seen that there was this Meetup group doing a dog hike. I thought, “I can do that. I can bring my dog.”

It is a security blanket thing.

If nothing else, I can talk to my dog. I went and I did that. Everyone was incredibly welcoming. There were about twenty of us. We had to get into each other’s cars. There was one car at the end and one car at the beginning. In the end, the organizer had everyone come back to their house and we had a picnic. It was so great. I was like, “Fantastic. This is so wonderful.”

Someone that is going to do that is going to be an extraordinary person. One of the things people say about Meetup is that you are not just meeting 5 people or 10 people. You are meeting 5, 10 or 15 amazing people because they are putting themselves out there. They are people who truly care about helping other people. They are people who care about the loneliness that people and the lack of community that people feel. They are putting themselves out there. When people put themselves out there, the ability to bond with those people like inviting you back to their home is amazing.

There is a natural flow of conversation when you talk about books. The door is open to start talking. That is where a lot of people feel like there is a real connection with each other.

It was the best New Year’s Day I have had in so long. It was so wonderful.

What a great first Meetup experience.

That is when I thought, “How will I get friends here to go explore the city with me?” I thought, “There is Meetup. Let me look into that again.”

How many years after your first Meetup event did you become an organizer?

Ten.

For anyone here who has not gone to an event in ten years, it is still a great time to be able to go. One thing that you pointed out, Audrey, which always strikes me is transition times in people’s lives. You had just graduated from law school, transitioning from a law student to a worker person. That is a transition point. When people get divorced is a transition time. When people move to a new city is a transition time. I think that Meetup is at its best during those transition times for people. What are your thoughts on it and experiences with it having met many Meetup members?

There is an example. There is one woman who joined our book club. She did it with intention, which was interesting. This area is also her hometown, but she had been living in California for a long time. She is coming back to a place that had not been home for a long time. She is in her early 30s. She wants to join a book club because that is how she thought she would meet people. That is her interest. She went through. What she did was she looked at all the different book club options that were available to her in Meetup within the area. She looked to see how many had people coming back, how many had the same people that were coming back month to month. She thought, “It must be good if people are returning.”

She told me about that. She said, “I joined this group with intention because it looked like it was a welcoming group that people kept coming back to.” She has helped to organize events since then. She has helped pair things together. It is something that brought her a lot during that transition for her. I asked people when they join, “How did you hear about the group?” It is either a friend or a Meetup event. I also ask people and most people are joining either because they are looking for friends or they are new to the area. It is one of the other.

Think about how much you have been able to help out so many different people. What does your daughter think of all this? What do your friends think of all this that is not involved in the Meetup group? Is your daughter proud of you for all that you do? Has she been to Meetup events?

We went to Washington DC for the day. We went up the tower and it was the monument. She and her boyfriend came and got to meet all the Meetup people. It was fun. I have two older boys. My middle one lives in New York City. He attended Pace University. He went to one of the museum events with us. It is fun because I feel like I get to show off my kids with my Meetup friends.

It is almost like the reverse of a parent-teacher conference. It is like child conferences where the kids end up meeting all of their parents’ friends and hearing about it. The amazing thing is a lot of times these teenage kids or young adult kids do not necessarily think that they would be interested in hanging out with their parents’ friends, but they go and they end up having an amazing time.

There are people in my group. It is interesting because I thought it would be a bunch of middle-aged ladies that will be in my group, but I have people in their twenties that join us. Everyone talks and engages in conversation with each other. It does not matter. The commonality is our love for reading and exploring. It does not matter the age. It is so much fun engaging with all of these people, with their random experiences, and what they bring to the group.

That story resonates with me a lot. I think that in this country, ageism is such an enormous problem. In the industry that I am in tech is particularly an even larger problem because tech tends to skew younger. Sometimes people do have some fear of technology as people have more experience. It reminds me of a friend of mine who is 50 years old and he goes to a horror film Meetup group. He said there are people in their 80s that he would never interact with the generation ahead. There are people in their 20s who are a generation behind.

The people in their 20s are interacting with people in their 80s. They see a film. They go to dinner. It is the most beautiful thing. People in the 50s or 60s or 70s also have negative stereotypes of people in their 20s and 30s. It goes both ways. The ability to remove and reduce those stereotypes is an important role that we could play in this world.

KCM 41 | Building Community
Building Community: If the book is really good, you do not want to stop listening.

I love watching the interaction. I have kids those ages and I love learning from the people that are older than me and the people that are younger than me. It is fantastic.

Has it affected your law practice or your law work at all by your Meetup group or it is two totally separate things?

It is two totally separate things. I post on social media all these different things that I do. It is a lot of fun. So many times, my friends that are not around here will comment like, “Are you still working? Do you work?” I am always doing something. Every weekend, I am doing something. It is a lot of fun. The hardest thing for me is trying to plan things in advance and know what is my calendar going to be because there tend to be more of a spontaneous person. I have people in the group going, “What is going to happen in July? What are we doing in July? What is going on in August? I have not seen anything in July and August.” It is like, “What is my social life?” That’s what they are saying.

That is a lot of pressure. You are in charge of all these people’s social lives.

They do not want to plan something else. They do not want to miss something.

It sounds like you do not mind helping to control this situation. That is not a problem. I love to hear some best practices advice. You have hit on so many different pieces from flexibility to engage other people to be leaders. Let’s break it apart into two parts. Let’s talk about the book club part. On a book club, what is some advice you would give to a book club organizer? We have tens of thousands of book club organizers and millions of members of book clubs. I am sure we are going to be sharing this episode with anyone who is a part of a book club. For book club members, specifically, what additional advice would you give?

It is finding the book that is going to engage the most number of people, but at the same time generate conversation. Not every book is great for conversation. I will admit that the book is something that is a little tangential to the event. It leads us to the conversation. It does inspire or else I pick the book after I want to go do the event. It is a little easier. We do not have to fill a whole hour with the discussion about the book.

That is interesting that you sometimes choose the event first, and then you will come up with a book.

It is hit or miss with books. I tend to go deep into the internet to find the right book to pair up with the events.

You do not just go with the popular stuff.

We did a bingo event. We did a gay bingo, which was fantastic. It was drag queens leading the whole bingo thing. It was great. We read this book. It was the only book I could find in the entire world that was about bingo. It was about these people in a nursing home that killed somebody else while they are playing bingo. The book was terrible, but it was fun. For a traditional book club, picking a book is hard. I enjoy it when members suggest books.

Give us your 2, 3 or 4 books that people may not have heard of, but they are fantastic books for a book club.

I do not know if anyone has heard of Geek Love, but I thought that was a fantastic book. I am not even going to say what it is about. Just make sure you are not queasy if you are going to read it. It is insane. We read This Tender Land. I thought it was a fantastic book about Native Americans and their experiences in camps and educational facilities to try and convert them. I am one of those who are like, “What is your favorite song?” “I do not know.”

The worst question to ask is, “Tell me a joke.” I do not even have a list of jokes ahead of me. It was a great list. A couple more hits, then you could be like, “David, I know we are talking about this right now, but here are two more books.” That is a great list of suggestions around books for book club leaders. Let’s talk about doers and action-oriented groups which we also have many of, adventure seekers, even mini-adventures, and weekend activity-based Meetup groups. What advice would you give to them where there are logistical challenges? We would love to hear any advice specifically for activity-based groups.

It is hit or miss with books. If you’re a host, you tend to go deep into the internet to find the right book to pair up with the events.

The most important thing is to give people the details. I do not know that everyone reads everything I put there. In fact, I know they do not. Sometimes they ask me something and I am like, “I put it in there. Did you read that?” The timing is important. I know sometimes we will put something out four months in advance and people say they want to do it, but then they forget. I find a 30-day window is about the right amount of time to announce an event. Sometimes I will post events more in advance, but I will not announce them until about 30 days out. Having those details for people to know what to expect. Be on time when you are there. Try to get there a little bit earlier than your group, so that you can talk to whoever it is at the event, whether it is the museum or it is a hike.

Try and get some helpers within your group to help you to organize. We have all been through COVID and I organized an activity to go to a museum. Two days before that, I tested positive for COVID and I could not go. I reached out to one of the members and said, “Would you be willing to host?” I had everything already set up. It was very easy for him to be able to say, “Okay, meet at the museum.” He took care of everything. It is good to have people to fall back on.

You seem great post COVID. I am glad that you are fully recovered. Last question before we go into rapid-fire. You have shared a number of meaningful stories about people who have moved, moved back, people who are afraid of kayaking, etc. Do you have another story that you would be open to sharing, either an experience positive or negative?

We did our first-weekend event. We did the whole week and we went up to Jim Thorpe and we went whitewater rafting. The next day, we went bicycling. The day before that, we did a trolley tour. It was twelve women in a house. Some knew each other. Some did not. Two people were brand new to the group and had never been to any event before. That could be disastrous. You do not know how personalities are going to get along.

One of the things that every single person said was it was absolutely fantastic. It was an amazing weekend that everyone got along with each other. There were no issues whatsoever with personalities. I think it is because we are all readers. We all have that commonality. It was people from their 30s to their 60s. It was great.

You got to do it again. Is it going to be once a year or twice a year? What do you think?

They are already like, “Where are we going next weekend? What are we doing?”

From a philanthropic standpoint, so many people’s philanthropy, they associate with donating money. Donating money is important, do not get me wrong. It is very important, but what people do not oftentimes realize is donating your time is sometimes even more valuable because it is very limited than donating money. You are donating tremendous amounts of your time to help out so many people. It is awesome, Audrey. Rapid-fire questions. Rapid-fire answers. Here we go. The first time you saw yourself as a leader?

When I was ten and I was bossing all my friends around the neighborhood.

What were you telling them to do? Were they mowing the lawn?

Where they could ride their bike and in which direction we are going. We are going to the store. We are not going to the store. It was like, “I am in charge here.”

You were that fifth grader. Your poor parents. If you could access a time machine to go anywhere you want, anytime you want, where and when are you going?

We are huge Back to the Future fans. I want to go back to 1888. I want to be a farrier. I could not be, I am a woman. I am going to be a farrier back there in the 1800s with the horses. I think it would be fun to back there in the Wild Wild West.

Bucket list, what is on that?

KCM 41 | Building Community
Building Community: The commonality is our love for reading and exploring. It does not matter the age. Engaging with people and what they bring to the group is so much fun.

My bucket is a tour somewhere. I want to go to Tanzania. I want to go speak Swahili to somebody. I took Swahili in college after I got mad at my Spanish teacher and dropped it. I ended up taking two years of Swahili. I want to go and I want to see parts of Africa. That is a huge bucket list, but I do not want to go for a two-week vacation. I want to go on an expedition.

When I turned 40, one of my bucket list things was to hike Kilimanjaro. I went to Tanzania and I hiked Kilimanjaro and learned a little bit of Swahili. I did a lot of dancing. There are learning Swahili Meetup groups out there, so maybe you could find that and brush up on your Swahili.

The only thing I know now is, “Jambo bwana, u hali gani?” That is it. That is all I remember.

What does that mean?

“Hello, sir. How are you?”

Last question. You have many more years, adventures, books that you are going to read, and Meetup events ahead of you. What do you most want to be remembered by?

I want to be remembered for fostering relationships and making people find their happiness. I do not want to make people’s happiness, but I want to give them the door to walk through to find their own happiness.

That’s what I want to hit on a little more, which is too often people will have a predisposition about what other people’s happiness should be, especially their kids or their parents or their friends. I think the way you said it was so beautiful, which is helping people to find the happiness that is right for them and for people to help to figure that out. The other part of life is that what makes people happy does change dramatically oftentimes throughout people’s lives. Audrey, you are an amazing person. I am so appreciative of what you do at Meetup. What you have done to help out hundreds of thousands of people that you come in contact with. Thank you for being you.

I have benefited from Meetup as much. Without Meetup, I would not have had this venue to be able to have all of these people join me on my adventure. It is not something like it. I am not saying that because we are on a Meetup show. I truly find it to be the one unique way to get people together to do adventures.

I could not say it better myself. Thank you so much again.

Thanks for reading this episode with the awesome Audrey Heller. What a success story. This is someone who started her group, did not know what would happen, and within a few weeks, had 200 members. She shared a lot of great feedback from members and organizers, advice like getting people out of their comfort zone, helping people to meet outside of work, helping members to step up, take on certain tasks and become more effective in organizing events, and the importance of building connections between people of all ages. Hopefully, you enjoyed this. If you did, then subscribe, that way, you will never miss an episode. Leave a review. Check out my new book, Decide and Conquer. Remember let’s keep connected because life is better together.

 

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Last modified on July 21, 2022