NEW YORK - Laren Stover sweeps into Le Gigot, a Greenwich Village bistro, wearing a vintage plaid swing coat and mismatched retro skirt with frothy red blooms that resemble poppies.
Dipping into a checkerboard bag, Stover, the author of Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge (Bulfinch, $19.95), produces a small vessel with a blurry gold and scarlet Florentine design. It is a long-ago find from the Carry-on Shop, a Baltimore thrift store frequented by Stover's grandmother. Stover uses the vessel, which has a tiny chip, to store buttons.
The vessel also reminds Stover of her grandmother - and of the city where she first encountered the advantages of a Bohemian lifestyle. Stover remembers Baltimore - where she was born, returned to frequently as a child and studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art - as a place where people "celebrated their quirkiness in strange and private and individual ways."
She remembers Edith Massey, "the Egg Lady" made famous by filmmaker John Waters, as well as Dantini the Magnificent, the house magician at the Peabody Bookshop and Beer Stube on North Charles Street until his death in 1979. Stover can still picture a Baltimore family she knew with a basement gallery, an upstairs trapeze, an old "woodie" truck and kids who ran barefoot and stilt-walked along Read Street.
Those early inspirations inform Manifesto, a Bohemian travelogue that journeys from 19th-century Paris to 21st- century Manhattan, from Bohemian propensities for nudity and taxidermy to a required reading list that includes Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
At a time when "moral values" seem to be foremost in the minds of millions, Stover's book might appear no less threatening than the Communist Manifesto. Unlike that treatise, though, her book is a declaration of independence from social control. In it, Stover describes a lifestyle willfully oblivious to the mainstream:
"The Bohemian is drunk on words, paintings, carvings, plays, love affairs, travel, meditation, olives, cypress trees, everydayness, movie images, video images, sounds, naked flesh, all-nighters."
A self-acknowledged Bohemian who lives in a Greenwich Village walk-up with her husband and co-writer, Paul Gregory Himmelein, Stover validates those who, like her, are congenitally incapable of playing by the rules. These are people who may not be able to balance a checkbook, but thrill to a mismatched universe where disparate philosophies, images and ideas collide to create new possibilities.
A new breakout of Bohemianism, as Stover describes it, may be imminent: "It's a timeless movement, a way of life both fleeting and enduring that reappears every now and then as a backlash against our bourgeois, mass-market, easy-access culture."
Stover, who has a day job as a writer for MAC cosmetics, has just completed a film promoting the company's new line of tea-inspired makeup. She is also the author of The Bombshell Manual of Style (Hyperion, $18.95), published in 2001.
But now Stover (who was taught by her grandmother not to reveal her age) has turned to an aesthetic more at home with death and espresso than marabou mules and Chanel No. 5 (although neither bombshells nor Bohemians care much about housekeeping).
Bohemian Manifesto finds value in dust (it's "beggar's velvet," not dirt) and decay. It considers the roles of hair, light, smoke, even "wheels" in Bohemian strongholds. Stover extols the properties of absinthe, a drink banned in the United States that is distilled from the hallucinogenic herb wormwood. Once consumed by a roster of Bohemian luminaries, from Edgar Allan Poe to Picasso, "It would still be the quintessential Bohemian drink if it were more accessible," she writes.
With deadpan directness, she provides a list of spices typically found in a Bohemian home, including asafetida, saffron, marmalade of rose hips and cloves. She even examines Bohemian bathrooms, which, she alerts the uninitiated, "rarely have locks" and where one might find "a doll leg or head that washed up on the beach and seemed to speak of the lost soul of humanity and of broken dreams."
Stover delineates among five types of Bohemians and includes a quiz to determine whether the reader is a Gypsy, Beat, Nouveau, Zen or Dandy. Hybrids are certainly possible, Stover says, as are "stealth Bohemians," who may pass as avatars of conformity for the sake of their families, employers and communities.
Though amusingly couched as a kind of how-to book, Bohemian Manifesto is really a celebration of living free from convention, the author says. "You can't read any book that can tell you how to be," says Stover, proud owner of both an old rotary phone and a sleek new cell phone featuring a photo of her stuffed bat.
In a sense, Stover's Manifesto is a self-help book in reverse. "Do something you've always wanted to (without fear), but for heaven's sake, don't take a time-management workshop," she admonishes.