One Book One BART, the San Francisco Bay Area’s new transit-centric book club, has much of what you’d expect if you’ve ever gathered around a living room coffee table: a title picked in advance, a lively group discussion and lots of bibliophiles.
Yet there’s a key distinction: Members meet on a moving train, united not only by a love of memoirs and novels but also by their love of a regional transit system that has finally begun to see an uptick in ridership after years of near-empty trains.
This season’s pick? On the Rooftop by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.
Club members meet at a designated station at a designated time and board the train together, breaking into small groups for discussion so it’s easier to hear. The first read-in was such a success that the fall installment doubled the length of train time to around an hour—with members riding the Red Line end-to-end, all the way from Richmond to Daly City. Hanging onto a pole with one hand while keeping a book open with the other can be a challenge in its own right.
“It’s really nice to be around other people for whom BART is very important,” said middle school librarian John Evans, a club member since its beginning. Evans lives in the East Bay and travels mostly by BART and bike; he doesn’t own a car.
“We already share something in common,” he added.
For others, it's the curation that’s most appealing. Member Susanna Chau appreciates that the One Book One BART focuses on Bay Area themes and authors—the club’s first selection was the 2022 memoir Stay True by New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu, which is set in Berkeley in the 1990s.
“I’m finding this new way of connecting with my community,” said Chau, an avid reader and transit rider.
That’s exactly what Michelle Robertson, BART’s senior marketing representative, who launched the club, has in mind.
“The goal is community engagement and to get people excited about transit,” Robertson said.
Last weekend’s read-in—which began at the Richmond station and ended in Daly City—featured Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s On the Rooftop. The novel takes place in San Francisco’s Fillmore district in the 1950s, and members said the discussion meandered from the book to life in the Bay Area more generally.
The club’s next event will be on Nov. 1, when Sexton will appear in person for an author talk moderated by another Bay Area writer, Vanessa Hua, at BART headquarters in Downtown Oakland.
Evans and Chau both highlighted the diversity of the club’s members, who are of a variety of ages and from numerous backgrounds.
“They were people you might not run into in your day-to-day,” Evans said. “But we were all connected by the book.”
BART ridership took a steep dive after the pandemic, when people stopped going into the office regularly. Robertson hopes that the club will help public transit and also spotlight indie bookstores, small presses and public libraries, many of which are accessible by BART. The Bartable newsletter includes local bookstores like Moe’s Books and Revolution Books—also noting their respective BART stations—where members can pick up the selected title.
One Book One BART is not the only creative initiative Robertson has spearheaded to get riders back onto platforms—she also runs a program with Jennifer Easton that includes short story dispensers in selected stations. Passengers can wave their hand over the machines and receive a free story printed on receipt-like paper by a Bay Area author to read on their trip. The dispensers are currently located at the Downtown Berkeley, Balboa Park, Fruitvale and Pleasant Hill stations.
The book club activities include a raffle and giveaways of BART swag, which is highly coveted in the Bay Area, Robertson said. A holiday-themed BART sweater once sold out online in 40 minutes. It all goes to show how deep the love runs for the transit system, with its retro-futuristic trains and robotic-sounding announcements.
“It’s so much more than just public transportation,” Evans said.