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It's a Meeting Place of Unlimited Creativity

Community: Sure, you can buy books here, but at Creativity Arts Center you can also hold a rally, listen to music, design a Web page or perform a comedy routine.

March 13, 1997|JANET WISCOMBE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A month ago, city official Angie Banks started menopause. Frankly, it's given her a terrible case of the "weepers."

She dabs her eyes and has a nice little cry.

Banks is a character in an improvisational play titled "Town Meeting (When Life Imitates Art, Starring: You the Audience)" onstage at the Creativity Arts Center and CyberCenter in Santa Monica.

Joe, the fire chief, jumps to his feet from a white plastic lawn chair to register his disgust at the outburst.

"Frankly, it's embarrassing," he snorts.

Town Treasurer Ray Aspires breaks into a cornball rendition of "My Way."

"Pervert! Pervert!" somebody bellows from the audience.

"Knock, knock."

Banks is back at the mike. The audience indulges her.

"Who's there?"

"Armageddon."

"Armageddon who?"

"Armageddon on your doorstep."

Groan.

*

Welcome to Creativity, the newest and most eclectic bibliohappening in L.A., a bookstore that has a built-in stage--but very few books.

As the name implies, it is dedicated not to reading or to prowling through musty stacks but to nurturing creativity--from songwriting to storytelling, from the slapstick to the sublime.

There is, of course, nothing new about the mutation of the bookstore as a kind of thinking person's rec center. In recent years, bookstores have become havens of coffee, conversation and culture. Poetry readings and book signings are de rigueur. Today's bookstore customer is accustomed to the aroma of muffins and latte and the sound of music and laughter.

At some of the chummiest, children are invited to come to story hours in their jammies, a literary concept that probably never occurred to Sylvia Beach.

Creativity, which has dropped the words "book" and "store" from its identity, just upped the activity ante, and raised it again. Here, in an open-beamed, 4,000-square-foot space, a full transition has been made from book emporium to community meeting spot and intellectual center. Customers can buy specialty books on art and creativity, shop for arts and crafts, vent social outrage, hold a political rally or debate, perform a comedy routine, join a songwriter's circle, listen to jazz, deliver a poetry reading, tell a story (or a joke), design a Web page, take a class in writing or art or desktop publishing.

The cappuccino and used books are next door at the Novel Cafe. And soon customers will be able to rent computers by the hour or participate in a range of cyber activities when Creativity's computer education center opens in the loft.

"I'm especially interested in community," says Creativity owner John Gabree, cultural patriarch and former owner of L.A. (The Bookstore). "We not only want to present art like you can in galleries and museums and even movie theaters. This is a place where people can participate.

"Our society is deeply alienated," he adds. "This is a place for people to connect with one another."

*

Gabree opened Creativity in December. He says he wants to nurture creativity at an earlier stage than is possible in more commercial and institutional settings, and to develop an educational resource program specializing in art and computer classes for artists.

He's modeled it after places like City Lights in San Francisco and Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Company in Paris, literary hang-outs long associated with fictive minds and creative energy.

Gabree, a gentle man of 53, is a Brown University educated writer-politico with roots in New England and New York and a passion for Anthony Trollope. Like the British novelist, he is a highly political animal with a taste for satire and a reputation for viewing people with tolerance and affection.

He once wrote a book on rock 'n' roll; he's also spent time in the classroom as a special ed teacher.

"He is Creativity," says Eric Vollmer, a friend who directs Arts-InFormation, a foundation the bookstore launched to raise public and private money for educational programs. "He keeps track of everyone. He's the community archivist. He's a Jewish mother."

Gabree is widely known in the Southland for fostering local talent. He's a nurturing presence who knows everyone in the tightknit neighborhood of Ocean Park, and is as attentive to the homeless flute maker as he is to the hippest of Hollywood screenwriters.

That's why artists are so drawn to Creativity, says producer-director-performer Gary Gordon. "John is a visionary."

Every Monday, Gordon runs Free Expression Nights, a five-hour open stage event where poets, comics, musicians and performing artists--both amateur and professional--can get up for seven minutes--or two songs--to say whatever they want or to test new material.

"This is a place where market forces are secondary and maybe don't exist," Gordon says. "When you start charging money, artists take fewer risks. They go less for new material and more for the tried and true. The fact that there's no cover charge has made all of the art truly accessible.

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