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Seeking Solace Among the Friendly Shelves


When troubled, even anguished, some people call their shrinks, some go to Lourdes.

A lot of us head to the closest newsstand.

Adam Rodman, for example, who lives in Hollywood, was in the Valley recently, at the newsstand at the southwest corner of Van Nuys and Victory boulevards. He had just come from his nutritionist, with 8-year-old daughter Bridget in tow.

"He's obsessed with cameras," Bridget confided, rolling her eyes, as her dad checked out the dozens of photography magazines on the sunlit shelves.

A writer, Rodman riffled through the brightly colored offerings with the rapt look of a worshiper at the shrine of the periodical, eternally confident that each new issue will reveal some truth or take-home lesson that justifies the $3 to $5 one of the magazines would cost a nonsubscriber.

"I could probably navigate L.A. by its newsstands," says Rodman, whose father was also a true believer. Rodman says he visits newsstands at least three times a week, and estimates that he spends $3,000 to $4,000 a year on magazines, much to his accountant's chagrin.

"I buy a bunch, I browse a bunch," he explains. "I browse subcultures through newsstands."

Clearly, one of the attractions of newsstand magazines is that they allow you to study enthusiasms at a distance, without actually joining a particular community or cult, or even revealing your name and address.

One of Rodman's current favorites is a hard-to-find British periodical, New Scientist, which explores the relationship between science and culture. For her part, Bridget doesn't muddy her reading pleasure with redeeming social merit. She is an unapologetic consumer of periodicals that purvey only yuks--Mad magazine, Cracked and something called Knuckles the Echidna, which sounds like a magazine about an anteater to me, but I defer to Bridget on this one.

One of the best things about newsstand browsing is that it is a form of procrastination that at least holds out the promise of your learning something useful to the project you are deferring.

"If you're avoiding work, there is no better place than a newsstand," Rodman says. A writer for TV and movies, he is currently finishing his first Broadway play, with Patrick Sheane Duncan. Called "Swan Song," it's about a theatrical grande dame coping with Alzheimer's, and it is due in March.

Rodman's uneasy smile reflects equal parts guilt and happy truant as he confesses: "I could be home writing a scene that I promised to fax out to my partner today, or I could be at a newsstand."

People, like Rodman and me, who can't stay away from newsstands for more than a couple of days, realize that they are one of what writer Tillie Olsen calls "sources of health in everyday life." A lot of the things you can do to damp down the inevitable anxiety of living a complex life will destroy you in the end. Newsstands rarely bankrupt you, break your heart or ruin your liver.

Regulars have different ways of exploring these special places. I have never been at a newsstand, whether it was in Chatsworth or Hong Kong, when it wasn't also being patronized by at least one guy whose back was turned to the world as he leafed through the X-rated magazines.

These guys can't resist peeking (they, too, know that something life-changing could be in this issue), but they do everything short of taking off their shirts and using them as shields to make sure that the rest of us don't know whether it's mammarys as big as the Ritz or Brad Pitt that inflames them.

Women, too, sometimes indulge shameful desires at the newsstand. I, myself, have been known to pick up the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living, look around to make sure no one is watching, then check out what America's domestic deity has designated as this month's Good Thing. A friend who is far hipper than I confessed that she refused to lend her best friend the archival issue of Living that featured the special Martha Stewart palette of paint colors, the really yummy ones inspired by the eggs of the exotic chickens Stewart claims she keeps at her country house (Riiight).

You turn to newsstands, as you turn to other forms of solace, when your life is changing. Become a teenager, discover your first fashion magazines. Buy your first house, Metropolitan Home may be able to tell you what to do about window treatments, something you never thought about as a teenager. Realize you have worked half a lifetime and have no savings, and the personal finance magazines begin to call your name.

Lately, I have begun to read In Style magazine. Not because I care whether Calista Flockhart is too thin, but because I'm afraid that if I don't read it at some point, I will become so out of it that my picture will end up in the Museum of Historic Hairstyles, next to Marie Antoinette's and Donna Reed's.

In Style is a great place to find out what color lipstick is in these days, even if you don't wear lipstick. But it is not all good news. Recently, I saw a fashion spread featuring Sigourney Weaver. Her dress was elegant, as befits a woman who looks like she could negotiate a cease-fire while counting backward by 13. But the shoes, Lord, the shoes: 3-inch stiletto heels, and more than a hint of toe bondage.

Recently, a new fashion/lifestyle/health magazine called More caught my eye. The models are gorgeous, and none is younger than 40. In introductory remarks, editor-in-chief Martha Farnsworth Riche wrote that the somewhat ambiguous title was chosen because, "To be absolutely honest, it was the name we disliked the least."

No, Ms. Riche, let's be absolutely, absolutely honest. You figured your target audience wouldn't stand for Old Broad, but that doesn't mean we wouldn't pick it up on the newsstand.

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