The group could be on its way to camp — more than 60 women piled into charter buses headed north of Los Angeles, luggage packed in tight underneath the vehicle, the buses swinging widely around scenic turns. They wind their way along the ocean, on Pacific Coast Highway, passing fruit stands, seafood markets and at least one sunflower farm.
But there are no raucous rounds of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to pass the time on this road trip, no macramé-ing of friendship bracelets. And archery, horseback riding and kickball are not on the agenda this weekend.
The main event? Books.
These three days in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country were organized by book magnate Zibby Owens of Zibby Media. Her quarterly retreats for book lovers, held all over the country (the inaugural one, in March, was in Hampton Bays), could be considered yet another offshoot of her growing literary empire, which began with a 2018 podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” (on which she interviews authors) and grew to include a book club, a magazine, classes, a podcast network, a publishing company and now a bookstore in Santa Monica, Zibby’s Bookshop.
Except that the impetus for the retreats — fostering connection between book lovers and bringing new books to light, whether from Zibby Books or elsewhere — is the root of why Owens started the podcast to begin with.
“The heart of the whole brand is when people actually get together,” Owens says. “The retreats are intimate. The whole goal is about deepening the connection between authors and readers. And spreading the word about books that I love.”
The bus ride to the village of Solvang, where the group will be staying, is an animated, real-life version of Owens’ motto — “Stories are best when shared” — which appears on the tote bags full of snacks given out for the trip. The roar of conversation on the bus is near-deafening and constant. Most of these women — who have traveled from the Midwest and the East Coast, with several from the L.A. area and one from Japan — have just met and they launch into intimate story sharing, a merry if passionate sound that forms the cacophonous backdrop of the next three days. Some of the travelers have books cracked open on their laps, and they flip through pages or pass the book to their seatmate.
All the participants are women, though the retreat was open to men as well. Five are featured authors who will be leading chats. Michelle Wildgen (“Wine People”) and Patty Lin (“End Credits”) are Zibby Books authors. Silvia Vasquez-Lavado (“In the Shadow of the Mountain”), Eirinie Carson (“The Dead Are Gods”) and Cin Fabré (“Wolf Hustle”) are with other publishers, but Owens was so moved by their books that she wants “to shout them from the rooftops.”
About a third of the women are aspiring writers looking for guidance, inspiration or simply to hobnob with published authors — and for those folks, the retreat does include a few workshops, though it’s meant to be more of a “fun, restorative weekend,” as Owens puts it, with yoga, cocktail parties and at least one walking tour of the area.
The majority, however, are simply voracious readers, with no writing or publishing aspirations. They just want to be around like-minded bookworms.
“I have zero ambitions to write a book. Nope, never!” said Diane Pabesic, 65, a retired nurse who now works as a yoga therapist.
“A lot of my friends aren’t reading anymore. And I want to talk to people who are still reading,” Pabesic said.
Cindy Denault, 61, and Lauren Denault, 35, from Tennessee and Colorado, respectively, are on a mother-daughter book-bonding trip.
“This is like a dream thing for me to do,” Cindy Denault says, “to be in a place with people who like to read for three days, people who love something that I love. And to have time, just the two of us, to share it — it’s special.”
Arriving at the Landsby, a boutique hotel in Solvang featuring minimalist Scandinavian design — lots of unfinished wood, macramé wall hangings and tiled fireplaces — one needn’t worry about getting lost. Just follow the booming din of connection. Later, a late-afternoon walk through Solvang ends — where else? — at a quaint, independent bookshop.
The author talks provide insight and more connections.
Wildgen’s book, which came out a month earlier, was the inspiration for the retreat location. It’s about two women who work in wine importing.
This is Wildgen’s third novel, but “discoverability” is still a challenge for all authors in the age of Amazon. Owens says her retreats aren’t about book promotion and sales, but about connecting authors with book fans from around the country — many of whom will share their experiences with their book clubs back home — a business strategy with word-of-mouth at its core.