An Open Book with Ashley Dewji

The Neapolitan started a virtual women’s book club that turned the page on pandemic isolation and created a community

Ashley Dewji, a private banker and financial advisor with J.P. Morgan, learned the value of library books and reading from her father. Photo by Vanessa Rogers
Ashley Dewji, a private banker and financial advisor with J.P. Morgan, learned the value of library books and reading from her father. Photography by Vanessa Rogers

When Ashley Dewji was young, she had no interest in reading. Her father would tell her repeatedly, “Readers are leaders.” But it didn’t sink in. 

So, he tried another tack. He took Ashley and her brother to the bookstore. They looked at the books and their prices. Then he took them to the library, where he explained they could check out the same books for free. And he made them an offer. He wanted them to read and submit to him a short book report. “If you get your book from the library, I’ll give you the price of the book. If you want it from the store, I will buy it, and I’ll give you half the price of the book.” 

Dewji, a private banker and financial advisor with J.P. Morgan, laughs as she notes: “Money was a good motivator for me. I went to the library!” She understands that her father was promoting the importance of reading while instilling the concept of being able to read for free through the library. “And to this day,” she says, “I love the library.”

Reading remains integral to Dewji’s daily life. This passion inspired her to launch a successful book club in Naples last spring, when the country went into lockdown. After looking with some dread at the prospect of living and working from home for an indeterminate amount of time, she decided to invite some women to create a book club. 

“I’m an incredibly social person,” says Dewji, 31, whose lively, outgoing manner invites easy conversation. “I sent an email out to women I respected, admired, and loved.” Some she had met through her charitable work on the boards of the Boys & Girls Club of Collier County and Gulfshore Playhouse. Most were in Naples, but a few lived out of state (including one in Paris) and were included on a videoconference call. She didn’t know how the invitations would be received, but it turned out the others were also starved for connection. In April 2020, the book club was born.

Lori Monserrat, Kelli Baxter, Ashley Dewji, Mary Pat Hussey Photo by Vanessa Rogers
Lori Monserrat, Kelli Baxter, Ashley Dewji, Mary Pat Hussey

A Different Approach, A New Sisterhood

Dewji, who is impressively organized, didn’t want this book club to be the kind where members slink in without reading the book. As a fan of personal development books, she approached it the way that type of book might tell you to tackle a big project: Break it into achievable chunks. She decided that the group would meet weekly, not monthly, and discuss a few chapters at a time. Reading a 400-page book on deadline can be intimidating or off-putting, but, she figured, reading four chapters isn’t. The group would take four or five weeks to get through each book, and then take a short break before starting the next one. 

The book choices are a democratic process. Each member submits a few possibilities, then ranks their preferences on the long list. The one with the most votes wins. The club doesn’t work far in advance because they want to stay responsive to what’s happening in the world or in their lives. 

No matter what books they choose, the club has been indispensable to its members for getting through this strange, isolated pandemic year. Dewji says that she learned through the pandemic that many people are struggling with mental health challenges due to fear, uncertainty, and separation from friends and family. 

Lori Monserrat, Kelli Baxter, Mary Pat Hussey, Ashley Dewji Photo by Vanessa Rogers
Lori Monserrat, Kelli Baxter, Mary Pat Hussey, Ashley Dewji

“For me, it became so important to bring women together,” Dewji says. “We do more than just talk about the books. We get together to talk about health issues, and so-and-so’s husband who isn’t doing well, or someone else who’s been homeschooling their kids and are totally burned out. I heard from the women that they just looked forward to having something else to turn to. It was a way to bring women together to really build, as we call it now, a sisterhood. It was our sisterhood through COVID.”

Turning to books for comfort, entertainment, and empathy was something many people did during the pandemic. According to NPD BookScan, which tracks sales for the publishing industry, sales of print books increased 8.2 percent from 2019 to 2020, the largest annual increase since 2005. E-book sales jumped 12.6 percent year-over-year.

For Dewji and her book club sisters, the ability to experience a different point of view—from the author as well as the members convening through the videoconference screen—makes the book club valuable. She says that reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers had the biggest impact on her perspective.

“As humans, we think our experience is everybody else’s experience,” she says. “And that book taught me that is just not true. If this last year taught us anything, it’s that we all don’t have the same experience. Everybody is dealing with things in their own way. When you read a book with somebody, it helps you to understand why someone’s perspective is what it is. That’s what I love about the book club.” 

Ashley Dewji Photo by Vanessa Rogers

Neapolitan Bibliophiles

Meet the local women who participate in the book club

Susan Bolch

Naples resident since: 2003

Career: Attorney, former college American history professor, author

Community organizations: Boys & Girls Club of Collier County, Camp Sunshine, and Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law School

How do you connect with reading? I have been a voracious reader all my life, as well as a lifelong learner and writer. Books have provided me with knowledge, insight, solace, hope, and even friendships among some unforgettable characters. I am never without a book, and I have instilled the same passion for reading among my children and my grandchildren. Whitman famously wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. To hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” For me, books are that grain of sand, that wildflower, that infinity, and that eternity. To spend time in the company of a good book is always time well spent.

What was it like to have the club read your book, The Cufflink? Hearing their questions to me as both the author and their friend, as well as their thoughtful commentary on the book, turned out to be one of the most moving experiences of my life.

Kelli Baxter

Naples resident since: 2004

Career: Leadership development and business improvement consultant

Community organizations: Guadalupe Center Tutor Corps, Gulf Coast Runners, and the Naples Winter Wine Festival (which supports the Naples Children & Education Foundation)

How has the book club been important to you? During the height of the pandemic, our book club was the highlight of my week, creating meaningful social interactions and thoughtful discussions. Most of all, I’ve enjoyed learning more about Ashley and meeting smart, caring, like-minded, beautiful women who have become “book club sisters” (a term I’m borrowing from Susan).

Lori Monserrat

Naples resident since: 2001

Career: Managing advisor at BKS Partners

Community organizations: Lighthouse of Collier, Earn to Learn Florida, Turn 2 Foundation

What have you enjoyed most about the book club? We went through this pandemic together as sisters learning about each other’s successes and challenges. Through our video sessions, we saw where everyone was on lockdown. We met each other’s pets and families. We could join from wherever we were to connect, laugh, praise, critique, and be distracted from our seemingly eternal “Groundhog Day.”

Marti Watson

Naples resident since: 1996

Career: Retired

Community organizations: Champions for Learning, Take Stock in Children, Naples Botanical Garden, and Conservancy of Southwest Florida

How has the book club been important to you? I devoured books as a child and I still admit to being addicted to the reading habit even more as I grow older. Books connect us with people from all walks of life, young and old. I value the connections I have with my friends and family through reading. It is the basis of learning and development.

Mary Pat Hussey

Naples resident since: 1972

Career: Retired 

Community organizations: Boys & Girls Club of Collier County and the Naples Children & Education Foundation

How has the book club been important to you? During the pandemic, we were all starved for socialization. I have enjoyed meeting a diverse group of intelligent, productive, and interesting women.

Book Club Reads

Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

A Dream Too Big by Caylin Louis Moore

The Gift of Forgiveness by Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt  

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

The Cufflink by Susan Bolch

Educated by Tara Westover

West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge Stephenson

Story Credits: 

Shot on location at Campiello Ristorante & Bar and The Club Room, Naples

Ashley Dewji’s jewelry: Provident Jewelry, Naples

Hair and makeup: Julianne Lofendo, J.A. Styling

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