In Baltimore, the late, great written word takes a hit

March 13, 2001|By Michael Olesker

THE NEWS ABOUT Bibelot books arrives like a death blow to the culture. The area's biggest independent book and music seller files for bankruptcy and its owners announce they will close all four stores within 90 days. But any autopsy should include this inquiry: Is this another death blow for literature, or merely for business?

In either case, it hurts. It hurts any time a business folds, because it means people are losing jobs, and once-hopeful owners are losing an investment, and every home and every business in the surrounding neighborhoods ultimately feels some fallout.

When it's a bookstore, though, it feels like a personal affront. Such places are our warehouses of information and insight. They hold secrets waiting to be discovered by anyone who will merely turn a few pages. And they're the gathering places for people refusing to put their brains on automatic pilot.

When such places die, it seems a betrayal of our very own culture. And, with the city announcing last week that five Enoch Pratt library branches will close this year, and five more in the next five years, it begins to feel as if we're conducting graveside services for the written word.

Of course, we've been doing this for the last four decades. Big cities where newspapers once competed for readers are reduced to a single daily publication. The best-seller book lists, once dominated by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, are now filled with smarmy celebrity bios, or with self-help books, or books about adorable cats. The Internet now grabs millions of browsers, some of whom purchase books online and thus never have to walk out the front door.

On Sunday, the day the news broke about the Bibelot closings, a couple of clerks at its Cross Keys store placed some of the blame on computers.

"They go right to America Online," one said, "and the book arrives the next day. So they don't have to bother coming here."

Maybe that's a piece of it, but these stores were designed for more than that kind of buyer. The Bibelot at Canton's Boston Street, for example, has been a great place for young people who have moved into the neighborhood, and like to stroll through nearby shops, and then gather at Bibelot for coffee and a chat.

But, with all the gathering, and all the schmoozing, they weren't buying many books. At the Cross Keys location, sections of the store felt cozy as a living room. You could stretch out on a couch and browse to your heart's content, and nobody bugged you to move on. And, ensconced in Cross Keys and surrounded by such neighborhoods as Roland Park and Mount Washington, the place seemed a natural winner.

But, since the Cross Keys store opened more than a year ago, it never seemed to catch on. For one thing, the village's shopping area hasn't had the same energy since the landlord Rouse Co. squeezed the old Cross Keys Deli so hard that it moved out. The deli's customers used to spill through the whole retail area. For another, unless you knew the Cross Keys Bibelot existed before you stumbled onto it, there was no sign on nearby Falls Road letting people know it was there.

Some believe the Cross Keys and Canton locations drained off whatever profits the Woodholme and Timonium locations made.

On Sunday afternoon at the Woodholme Bibelot, on Reisterstown Road at the Beltway, the store was jumping with a variety of customers. A few dozen people were listening to a jazz combo playing Gershwin in one corner. The children's book section was filled with parents and kids. The music area was jumping. And the ubiquitous Donna's restaurant was filled.

And the Timonium Bibelot, York and Timonium roads, has always seemed energized - not only with book purchasers and lunchtime crowds, but with local authors and audiences that gathered to hear them pitch their newest works. The owners of Bibelot were quite lovely about making local writers feel comfortable.

All of this will end within the next 90 days, and so it leaves the old, unnerving question: Is this another inevitable sign of the narrowing of the reading public and the demise of the written word? We live in such a fast-paced, frenetic time, do people slow themselves down long enough to plunge into a book?

That's the beautiful thing about reading. It lets you slow the world down for a while. It lets you absorb information at your own pace, and not the world's.

But we now have a few generations of young people who have grown up in a world where the most compelling voice in the room wasn't a parent's, reading them a bedtime story. It was that piece of talking furniture on the other side of the room: the music on the radio, or the television offering sweets for the eyes, each ceaselessly beckoning.

Is the death of Bibelot merely a defeat for business - or for the written word? Maybe it depends what kind of operations will ultimately move into the stores' locations: new bookstores, which might thrive with better management, or some other ventures where profit is the only motive, and a piece of the culture is strictly an afterthought?

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