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THE SCENE : Sex and Sensibility

October 22, 1995|Mary McNamara

For me, going to a bookstore has always been an erotic experience. OK, maybe not erotic, but certainly sensual. I love books, the way they look, feel, smell. I love the heft and delicacy of them, their colors and shapes. I love the sound of an unbroken binding giving way, the rough whisper of a page first being turned, the taste of the words, whether new to me or familiar. And so I felt the recent bookstore boom in L.A. was a present from the Blessed Mother directly to me. It made me unbelievably happy that all the Borders and Barnes & Noble and Rizzoli stores were so full of people in love with books that the proprietors felt obliged to supply comfy chairs and studious tables, to play warm music and offer cappuccino and madeleines at adjacent cafes. I thought everyone had suddenly come to their senses, turned off their cable and embraced (oh, think of it) the written word.

Right.

I came to realize there was something more afoot here. Maybe it was the guy who, peering into my Borders basket, asked in a wink, wink sort of way if I really read Trollope (no, I answered, I was buying the Bartleshire series to use as doorstops) or the inevitable shoulder rubbing and shy smiles I seemed to encounter whenever I paused by the magazine rack. Certainly the now-ubiquitous combination of coffee fumes and Vivaldi made for a cozy rather than academic atmosphere. Then one fine Sunday afternoon at the Barnes & Noble in Pasadena, a young man with a remaindered copy of "Rabbit Run" in his hand asked me if Updike was worth reading. Startled, I looked up and around and it all became clear. This was no bookstore, this was a pickup joint.

After my initial heartbreak, I decided this was probably not a bad thing. During the next few weeks, I might have looked as if I was perusing "The Stone Diaries," but I was really reading the room. All in the interest of urban anthropology, mind you. So, for those who have taken to tome trolling, here are a few tips:

--Stay away from the self-help section. A woman flipping through "The Dance of Anger" or a book about eating disorders is telling those around her way more than they may want to know. Similarly, a man surreptitiously skimming "Men Are From Mars," or even "How to Make Love to a Woman," is hoisting a pretty bright red flag.

--Poring over the offerings in the erotica section may be a bit of an overstatement. But if you must, be certain your selection represents the persuasion you prefer--minimizes those awkward revelatory moments.

--If you plant yourself in a chair and read an entire novel in the store, you are sending several messages: (a) You are too poor or cheap to buy a book. (b) For some reason we need not get into, the L.A. County public library system refuses to issue you a card. (c) You do not have a life.

--Men, you cannot lose in the children's section. I once saw a group of very scary-looking multiple tattoo and piercing survivors argue over the merits of Beatrix Potter versus A.A. Milne with such tender ferocity that I wanted to marry all three.

--Whether the approacher or the approachee, do not pretend to know more about the ice-breaking subject than you do. I got caught in the computer aisle one evening and tried to bluff my way through. It was not pretty.

--Buy at least one book before you leave. Consider it a cover charge. After all, if you meet someone in a bookstore and he/she comes to discover that the only books you own are a used copy of the Aeneid and a paperback on Dianetics you got as a joke, all those hours of slouching and leaning, of leafing and shy eye contact, will be wasted. Just wasted.

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