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Book of Love

Barnes and Noble
Christopher Gardner

Booked: Barnes and Noble offers a full house of literate strangers on any given weekend night.

The '90s coffeehouse serves as pickup joint for the unattached bookworm and nightclub-challenged

By Richard Sine

In an early scene in Martin Scorsese's surreal fantasy After Hours, the lonely, mild-mannered hero sits in a cheesy diner reading a book when a beautiful young woman, having spied the dust jacket, begins discussing it excitedly. The hero stares up at the stranger's face, dumbfounded. It's every unattached bookworm's dream that something like this would happen, and now it was actually happening.

This rather fantastic scene sets a fitting tone for the rest of the movie, which exploits every square's anxieties about the darkest recesses of New York City nightlife. For who among the single literati has not shared the fantasy of the Ultimate Pickup? We are flipping through Baudelaire, our eyes wander from the page, and there stands the stranger: "What do I care if you are wise?" he says, quoting the poet in flawless French. "Be beautiful and sad!"

Now everyone is saying that bookstores are the pickup joints of the '90s, which opens the intriguing possibility that such pickups are actually occurring. At the least, the hope is that bookstores can act as a screener for the nookie-challenged. "You get some feeling that maybe these people read, maybe they're intelligent," says Sasha Shapiro of Barnes and Noble Bookstore on Stevens Creek Boulevard. (Shapiro organized singles nights at Barnes and Noble last year, but they died because not enough men were showing up. Hear that, guys?)

Alas, a bookstore ain't no disco, so the pickups here at Barnes and Noble are a bit more subtle than at your local dance club. Touring the bookstore on a recent Friday night, we started at the café. We figured that would be Scamateria Central. But many of the singles we talked to on a recent Friday night had never even considered the store's pickup potential. Others were just clueless. "There are lots of babes here, but it's hard to find a technique to get to talk to them," said one unfortunate Darwinian casualty.

Others were buried in stacks of books on Pascal programming; we didn't even ask them why they were here. If casually placing The Brothers Karamazov on your table is like making the scene in a cool leather jacket, then Advanced C++ is like cruising in a shapeless white sweat suit.

The true literary scamsters, it turned out, were not to be found in the open road of the café, but in the store's more discreet alleyways. Every store, it seems, has its own aisle sharks.

"I hang out in New Age," one man admitted as he sipped his latte. "I like that kind of book, and they can open up conversations on a more open and sensitive level. I say, 'Have you read James Redfield [The Celestine Prophecy]?' I ask what she thought of it. That opens up a conversation about her. Then we talk about me."

Later that night, Shapiro spots a man and woman in Native American Literature who look like they had just met. They converse spiritedly for about 15 minutes. After they break off, we converge on one of them. Susan Stein, in a white T-shirt, jeans and Birkenstocks, is as fresh and pretty as a young birch tree. "Oh, it's definitely a pickup joint," Stein told us. "When I come here, my fiancé goes, 'Are you sure you want to go there alone? So we usually go together.'"

This particular gentleman's line on Susan was simply "What are you reading?" It led into a wide-ranging conversation about Native American culture. Stein has apparently been hit upon a few times at bookstores, most recently while browsing in the environmental section.

Bookstore aisles, it appears, afford a privacy to prowling singles unparalleled in your average bar, café or supermarket. A single friend of a friend has refined the technique to a science. Spotting a fetching male candidate in the café, she waits until he heads into the aisles. Then, just as he reaches for a book, she reaches for the exact same book. Vive la coïncidence!

Bookstores are a good opportunity for singles to meet others with similar interests. The true frequency of such literary encounters is uncertain, however. We found only one couple who had actually met face to face for the first time at the bookstore. We were hoping they met angling for the store's last copy of a John Updike.

But theirs was not the kind of romance you find in the literature section--at least not yet. They had met on America Online.

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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