Bound to bookstores

Volumes: Internet is no match for shops filled with aroma of coffee and stacks of seemingly endless possibilities.

July 29, 1999|By Zanto Peabody | Zanto Peabody,SUN STAFF

Maybe it's just that they can't buy a steaming hot cup of coffee online.

Howard County readers continue to gravitate to brick-and-mortar bookstores instead of turning to the Internet to get their books.

William Wooten of Columbia walked into Barnes & Noble Booksellers this week, eyed "Mother of Pearl," an Oprah Book Club selection, studied a display commemorating Ernest Hemingway's 100th birthday, then found what he came for -- a cup of coffee.

"You can buy a book anywhere -- the book will be the same," Wooten said in the Starbucks cafe inside Barnes & Noble in Ellicott City. "I don't just want to buy a book. I want to see what's new, see if anybody I know is here. Then, I'll pick out a book, think about it over a cup of coffee before I buy it."

In the past four years, the Howard County book market has become one of superstores that offer their own programs of readings and mom-and-pop bookstores that have established a niche of loyal patrons. They all find themselves catering to patrons who prefer personal service and trendy atmosphere to discount shopping on the Internet.

"People who buy books should touch them first," said Joe Fleischmann of Ellicott City, who sometimes sells science fiction books at trade shows.

In the digital world, buying a book can be as easy as searching a catalog by title or subject, picking a book and placing an order, all online. A list of titles under the same subject could direct a reader to similar books.

Missing from that process, Wooten said, is the "right to wander and be confused" until coming across something eye-catching.

"I really don't know what I'm looking for," David Tarbrake of Columbia said, pacing in front of the science fiction wall at Waldenbooks at The Mall in Columbia. "I'm looking at the covers and reading the backs. You can't do that on Amazon.com if you don't know what you're looking for."

Ed Simon of Catonsville inspected several books edgewise and thumbed through the pages of "The Greatest Generation." He supported the book on the fingers of his right hand, lifted it, lowered it.

His book would be the one that felt right.

"Shopping for books is like shopping for fruit," Simon said. "If you don't touch it, you don't know what you're buying. It sounds crazy -- books are just words -- but I bought `The Testament' because I wanted a book I would take two weeks to read, and that was it."

Bookstores want to create that multisensory, multimedia buying experience.

Go into Borders Books and Music to buy Ricky Martin's compact disc Ricky Martin, and you pass a display of biographies on the pop singer.

Barnes & Noble surrounds its children's book section with a simulated Hundred Acre Wood from the Winnie the Pooh series.

The aroma of an amaretto Colombian roast can draw a customer into Cappuccino Books and Cafe in Ellicott City, where he will walk past covers featuring local color and fine cuisine en route to ordering a slice of French silk pie.

"We actually sell more coffee than books," said Ellen Diggs, who recently bought Cappuccino Books and Cafe. "Because we know people are coming in here to eat and have conversation, we have a lot of cooking books and art books."

To some, bookstores are readers' lounges, places to pore over a good book they may not buy. Those deep-cushioned chairs beckon them to nooks in the rearward recesses of the store, where they have time to read why Jesse Ventura writes, "I Ain't Got Time to Bleed."

"It's a way of reading without having to buy it," said University of Maryland freshman Erin Hammer, who was halfway through an issue of Jane magazine in Barnes & Noble.

Her friend Trevor Greene said: "Sometimes to be cheap, if I come in here and find a book I really like, I'll go to the library and check it out."

It is those readers cycling into and out of the stores -- buying or not -- that booksellers aim to attract with book signings, clubs and summer reading lists.

B. Dalton Booksellers in the mall sponsors reading and discussion coinciding with Miss Julie's Suggested Reading List for children. At Borders in Snowden Square in Columbia, readers gather regularly to discuss the Civil War, baseball and lesbian literature. Barnes & Noble's life improvement series features discussions facilitated by a local physician, Dr. Stephanie Durruthy.

"People tend to stick with the bookstore that fits their tastes," Cindi Arnold, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble, said. "We have approximately 40 community events in Ellicott City every month and 11 book groups.

"The people who want to participate in those and like our selection, stick with us. If they want to buy music and books in the same place, in this area they go to Borders. I think each bookstore has its own unique clientele."

The smaller bookstores in Howard County rely on niche markets for their survival.

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