It's no surprise that cigar smoking is verboten at Barnes & Noble in Huntington Beach. Or is it?
These days, gourmets cook, psychics predict, women drum and cuddly bears recite stories at bookstores big and small. Libraries let kids paste and glitter, dance and do division on computer.
Indeed, today's literary outlets increasingly offer activities traditionally provided by community colleges, recreation centers, preschools, concert halls and coffeehouses. After Barnes & Noble's Cigar Reading Group met recently, some reassembled at the store's on-site Starbucks to chug while they puffed with impunity--outdoors.
Both Barnes & Noble and Borders Books & Music employ community relations coordinators who spend their 9-to-5 booking special events.
"There is not one store without a community relations coordinator, and we have over 450 Barnes & Nobles nationwide," said Alice Anderson, the chain's Western regional community relations manager.
Outlets within such giant chains typically schedule daily events, including author book-signings, face painting, reading and writing groups, storytelling for kids in PJs, live music, Scrabble clubs and tai chi classes.
Smaller shops, such as Different Drummer or Fahrenheit 451, both in Laguna Beach, organize dream analysis and self-defense workshops, Tarot, numerology and palm readings, and open-mike poetry nights.
Lecture topics across Orange County range from topiary trimming to sunburn, F. Scott Fitzgerald to symbolism in art. Even on let-loose Friday nights, such talks draw standing-room-only, note-taking crowds, which suggests to media psychologist Stuart Fischoff that we crave more than movies and TV.
"People have a thirst for higher culture," Fischoff said.
The desire to share ideas with other book lovers also explains the activities' popularity, according to store officials. And a near certain profit encourages the stores to keep devising new attractions. Nobody talks specifics about revenues, but, for instance, hundreds jammed the Mission Viejo Borders when singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega played there in July before singing at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre with the touring Lilith Fair.
"We had about 300 people," many of whom bought autographed CDs, said Sandra Tomlin, the store's spokeswoman.
Public libraries don't have the record-industry connections that help Borders snag singers like Vega on the cheap. But many offer extensive, year-round reading incentive programs involving storytelling, craft making, lectures, music, magic and dance. Santa Ana Central Library's Learning Center invites youths to do homework or play games on one of seven computers.
"The bookstores are copying us," insists Linda Wallace, spokeswoman for the American Library Assn. in Chicago. "We've been having preschool story hours since before the 1920s, and summer reading programs have been popular for years."
Actually, libraries around the country have begun to imitate the chains by opening on-site coffee niches. About a dozen have sprung up, Wallace said, and the Orange County Public Library plans to include a coffee bar in its new Aliso Viejo branch, slated to open in December.
Borders Books & Music, Brea
On a recent Monday evening, the warehouse-huge Borders in Brea was buzzing like an overbooked community recreation center, only quieter, despite the patrons who conspicuously operated cell phones and laptops.
Arnold Vergilio and Kyla Malooly, senior citizens on a date, splurged on foamy Java in the store's quaint Espresso Cafe and people-watched. Women-watched, actually, as smartly suited members of the Brea Women's League, who meet in the cafe monthly, swapped business cards and plotted their next charity event.
"We come here a lot," said Vergilio of Huntington Beach, "once or twice a week. It's a change of scenery."
Several bookshelves away, beyond clusters of pudgy armchairs occupied by feet-up studious types, slouching mystery-novel readers and out-cold nappers, six Scrabble players spelled competitively.
"It's great fun, and I hate 'Monday Night Football,' " said Nikki Rice of Fullerton, sitting across a skinny table from opponent Desiree Engel, also of Fullerton.
"I bought two Scrabble books," Engel confessed, "and seven others last week."
More buying was being done in the nearby children's nook, laden with books and toys, and in the store's music section, where each type of music has listening stations equipped with headphones--26 sets in classical and opera alone.
Borders Books & Music, 429 Associated Road, Brea, (714) 672-0120. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thursday-Friday, 9 a.m. to midnight; Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Barnes & Noble, Huntington Beach
Music of a different sort was detectable without headphones at Barnes & Noble in Huntington Beach on a recent Friday night, as designer-decorator Shari W. Clemens lectured about feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of harmonious placement.