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Where Yarns Are Spun : At the Storyteller Bookstore & Cafe in Canoga Park, the fixation on the spoken narrative borders on the fanatical.

July 23, 1993|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly for The Times

"Everybody has a book in them. Your life is a book. You do the embellishments, the illustrations, the illuminations."

--Badger, a storyteller

On Wednesday evenings, when the music fades and the lights go down at the Storyteller Bookstore & Cafe in Canoga Park, a hush falls over the dinner crowd. Forks slide off quesadil las. Waitresses back away into corners. Even the traffic humming past on busy Sherman Way seems to pause briefly as a speaker climbs the stage, raises a hand and murmurs, "Many years ago, before the world came into being. . . ."

And thus begins a night of tales at the aptly named Storyteller--half book-shop, half brasserie--where the narrative fixation borders on the fanatical.

"As far as I know, it's the only place in the country that specializes in storytelling," says owner Ron Lancaster, whose modest hope is to "start a trend--similar to what we've seen with comedy houses" in venues like his.

Why such an emphasis on anecdote and make-believe?

"Enchantment," Lancaster explains. "Stories reach you in a way you can't be reached otherwise. Their message gets through to our emotions."

Badger, a Chino Hills yarn-spinner who has appeared on Lancaster's stage, links the experience of hearing stories to the comforts of childhood: "The audience becomes 5 years old again," he says, "and they're being read to by their parents in bed."

"It's an interesting alternative to TV-watching, nightclubs and all that alcoholic jazz," adds Linda Shoulders of West Hills, who often visits the Storyteller on Wednesday nights.

In addition to its more conventional coffeehouse lineup of poetry readings and music shows, the Storyteller has, since it opened in March, featured performers of Celtic stories, English tavern tales, folk and fairy lore, and personal narratives. Lancaster, himself a veteran raconteur, often steps up after the scheduled talent to tell some tall ones of his own.

The tale of his enterprise is a story in itself. Until November, Lancaster worked as an accountant at Hughes Aircraft, a job he lost during a spate of layoffs. "I'd always felt I had a lot to give," he recalls, "but I'd never had a chance. I'm devoted to the arts; I love music. I've told stories all my life. A place like this was my dream."

Taking everything he had--savings, pension--and raising all he could, he set about to turn a failed Canoga Park restaurant into a gathering spot for culture-addicts, he says. For $5,000, he bought the contents of a used bookstore in Downey--everything from Judy Blume young-adult novels to tomes on physics and espionage--and installed the contents on a flowered carpet under bright fluorescent lights. An almost ceiling-high bookcase divides his spacious quarters, making way, on one side, for pink tables, a piano and, of course, the stage, all warmed by track lights.

At any time of day, a pianist is likely to be playing Shubert or Debussy for customers dining on salads, sandwiches, Mexican-style entrees, desserts and specialty coffees. No liquor is served.

Partly because of the alcohol-free environment, Lancaster believes, the early months have been a struggle to survive. Still, he remains upbeat and full of plans for the future. Recently, he introduced children's music-and-story events--which he calls "the Doodlebug Company"--on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. In the wake of a short-story reading by students from Pierce College, he hopes to bring in other programs of fiction.

But grown-up tale-telling to what he calls "a mature crowd, 30s, 40s and up," remains the focus, and the passion, of his domain.

According to Badger, with the plethora of L. A. coffeehouses, "it's not unusual to find a place to tell stories. What is uncommon is a venue where you can just tell stories--and where the audience is so receptive."

Some audience members, coming to listen, have even stayed to tell stories themselves, something Lancaster encourages once the featured show has ended.

While Shoulders says hearing tales hasn't moved her yet to climb onstage, she does look at daily events differently now that she's watched what tellers make of life. "When something happens," she said, "I think to myself, 'Would this be a good story?' "

Which is exactly, Lancaster says, how a storyteller is born.

WHERE AND WHEN

Location: The Storyteller Bookstore & Cafe, 22047 Sherman Way, Canoga Park.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, 4 to 9 p.m. Sundays.

Program: Featured storytelling, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, followed by open storytelling. Poetry readings at 7:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of the month. The Doodlebug Company (for children ages 2 to 7), 10 a.m. Tuesdays and 11 a.m. Saturdays.

Cost: Children's events are free; most others require a $5 food/drink minimum; some (mainly songwriters' nights and some other musical programs) require a $2 to $5 cover charge.

Call: (818) 713-2518.

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