Are Americans hitting the books?

November 30, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

Katie Mazanek, 3, trailed after her mother at the new Barnes & Noble superstore in Schaumburg, Ill., clutching a children's book and sounding like a talking doll whose string was being pulled at specific intervals.

"Can I read 'Beauty and the Beast?' " Katie pleaded. "Can I read 'Beauty and the Beast?' "

Carol Mazanek stopped and executed a perfect half-turn, splitting her attention between the row of books in front of her and the daughter behind her. "Yes," she told Katie, "you may."

The Mazaneks soon sat down and began reading together, using a table in the children's section that helps make Barnes & Noble feel more like a library than a store.

For this suburban Chicago family, reading is not just a someday activity, it's an everyday one.

The popular perception is that the Mazaneks and families like them are the exceptions rather than the rule, that Americans don't read anymore, that television has taken over our lives and that we're raising a generation of mush brains and Gameboy heads.

The reality, however, may be different. For evidence, look no further than the ultimate arbiter of reality, the American marketplace.

Nationally, more than 100 book superstores -- those carrying 75,000 titles or more -- have opened in the last few years.

Some industry analysts and many independent bookstore operators say there may be a bookstore glut already. But statistics suggest otherwise.

Publishers' net dollar sales are growing at a faster rate in 1992 -- a little over 7 percent -- than in the previous two years, according to the not-for-profit Book Industry Study Group. And book sales are expected to lead the retail industry for the first half of the 1990s.

Sales to juveniles -- "our annuity," as one industry executive said -- are expected to rise nearly 13 percent this year, the book group said.

And customers at superstores generally take twice as long shopping and spend twice as much money as at regular bookstores, said Steve Riggio, executive vice president of Barnes & Noble.

All of this is good news at a time when reading is supposedly an anachronism and the average household watches 49 hours of TV a week, according to the A.C. Nielsen Co.

"All this talk about no one reading, that's just what it is -- talk," Mr. Riggio said. "The book business is in the most explosive growth period of its history."

Book sales and reading are not always the same thing, but some evidence does suggest Americans are reading as much or more now than they were just a few years ago.

According to a national survey by Yankelovich, Clancy, Schulman, a marketing research firm in Westport, Conn., the percentage of people who say they read to relax has risen in the five years the study has been conducted.

In 1992, according to the company, 49 percent said they read to relax, up from 45 percent last year and 36 percent in 1988.

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