Don't send your books to the museum just yet


February 11, 1996|By Elise Armacost

NOT LONG AGO, the discussion among members of The Sun's editorial board turned to the Information Superhighway -- specifically, to the question of whether the plain old printed page is headed for the graveyard now that you can read just about anything you want on-line.

You can imagine what a serious discussion this was, given that we newspaper people are headed for job retraining if readers stop buying the plain old printed page. A few doomsayers predicted it is only a matter of time before books, newspapers and magazines become museum exhibits.

Most of us, however, doubted that computer services will render ink on paper obsolete, for two reasons. First, as ubiquitous as the personal computer seems, most households (about 64 percent) still do not own one. And while the number that do certainly is growing, computers are expensive enough that -- barring the unlikely possibility that their prices will drop drastically -- a substantial portion of the population probably will never have them.

The second reason is that, well, you just can't curl up with a computer -- or read at the breakfast table, in the doctor's office or on a bus -- the way you can with a book, magazine or newspaper. Books, in particular, are somehow sacred. New-book smell almost rivals new-car smell. An old book feels as good in the hand as an old shoe on the foot.

And is there anything harder to throw away than a book? I worked part-time in a public library when I was in college, and patrons routinely showed up with boxes of books to donate -- antiquated textbooks, one-time bestsellers, cheap paperbacks and other tomes the library couldn't use. People could not bear to toss them out, so they begged us to take them, rather like a pet owner begging the zoo to give his overgrown boa a good home.

I'm sure a lot of techie folks would say those of us who make a living putting words on paper are in a state of denial, and I might believe them but for one fact: We aren't the only ones clinging to the printed page. Computers and the Internet aren't killing books. Books are booming. Books are big business. Books are hip.

Nationwide and all over the Baltimore area, book superstores designed not just for buying but for browsing and hanging out are popping up all over the place, and they're hugely popular. Towson's Borders and Pikesville's Bibelot -- a 25,000-square-foot cavern of books, tapes and CDs -- are always packed with a clientele that spans the generations. You find families with small children at pint-sized tables and chairs in the children's section; couples on dates reading together on a comfy sofa or sipping something hot in a coffee bar; senior citizens browsing the aisles.

Even without a coffee bar, the huge Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Annapolis Harbour Center has become a hot spot.

You know the book business is doing well when in Glen Burnie -- not exactly your Keats-and-cappuccino kind of town -- Waldenbooks abandons its narrow aisles and no-frills presentation at Marley Station and transforms itself into a modest imitation of Barnes & Noble, Bibelot and Borders.

Hip in Glen Burnie

I went there to buy a calendar the other week and found the store had moved to bigger quarters with a library-style layout, nice faux-wooden shelves and a bright, roomy children's section complete with the requisite pint-sized table and chairs.

A salesclerk said Waldenbooks intended to include toys in its new children's section, but quickly found toys aren't what parents are coming to buy for their kids. They want books. Which brings us to an interesting revelation. The children of the computer age -- frequently assumed to be mouse-clicking, remote-switching technotots who will render printed material obsolete -- are not ready to give up their storybooks. Plenty of parents are instilling a love of reading and a respect for books in their kids.

At Barnes & Noble last week, Matt McKenney, 2, chortled about Curious George and his sister Stephanie, 5, was deep into "The Hungry Hyena" after just having come from a story hour at ZanyBrainy a few doors down.

"It was packed," said their mother, Sonya -- as are the twice-weekly B&N story hours and the public library's storytelling sessions.

Stephanie has a computer, "and she likes it," her mother says. "But she will always come back with a book and want to sit down and read it. Computers are great, but I don't see them replacing books."

Sue Cruickshank overhears and agrees. "There's something to parents and kids reading books together as opposed to doing the computer thing," she says, browsing through chunky cardboard books with 2 1/2 -year-old Marshall. "It's a little more nurturing, more emotional. I can't picture us all sitting around the computer."

Or, I might add, reading a pulpy novel on a laptop on the beach, or inscribing the cover of a CD-ROM as a graduation gift. The superbookstore boom may be a passing fad, but books are not. Books are sacred. Long may they live.

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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