It's Friday night at the Barnes & Noble in the Har Mar strip mall. Over at the information desk, a woman asks: "Can you look up books by subject matter? Good. I'm looking for books on voices? Hearing voices?" Across the room, in one of the coveted overstuffed chairs that dot the sales floor, a guy's guy decked out in Vikings regalia studies The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Perfect Marriage, his elbow resting on The Bodybuilder's Encyclopedia.
In the center of the store, in the far-left quadrant of the café, what amounts to an American Sign Language happy hour is under way. Already more than 25 people have gathered near a small sign that reads: "Please join us for fun, casual conversation! American Sign Language. Sign only please! Fridays 6:00 to 8:00." A man of about 70 who looks like a Norwegian farmer in his red flannel shirt and bifocals chats with a pretty blond girl in her 20s, a hipster in a black leather jacket (who has just audibly ordered a drink from the café), and a deaf man who appears to be in late middle age. When a redheaded girl arrives, she taps the deaf man on the shoulder and hugs him when he turns around. That man then hugs another man who has been standing behind him. People arrive in twos and threes. Some take a seat at what seems to be the main table, others hang back or congregate in small, standing conversation circles. Over the course of two hours, the group swells to nearly 50 people and then shrinks to ten stalwarts who hang around a half-hour after the event has officially ended.
The ASL group is less than a year old, one of 11 conversation groups that meet weekly at reserved tables in the Har Mar store's café. Swedish, Swahili, and "Irish" are recent additions; French, Spanish, and Italian are the mainstays. Chinese has recently been put on the list for the second time. Also going strong: monthly book-based discussions in areas labeled Military History, Adventure/Travel/Outdoors, Journeys of Faith, Biography, Celebrity Cookbooks, and Mystery/Suspense; and a writers' group. These routinely feature authors and notable guests but remain more participatory than lecture-oriented, and are attended by a faithful core constituency as well as drop-ins. Then there's Wednesday Chess Night, author visits, musical performances, book clubs, and children's events.
Other Twin Cities-area Barnes & Nobles offer similar conversation groups, plus a Gay Men's Book Club at the downtown outlet; and a Spanish Book Club and a poetry night at the Galleria, where they're also busy planning a father-and-son monthly event. Industry cousin Borders has launched a similar events program, anchored by author readings and a number of musical performances in the café featuring local acoustic performers.
For city folk whose stereotypes of suburban cultural life involve satellite dishes and the karaoke machine at Fuddruckers, this kind of community bustle prompts a few questions: What the hell is happening here? And why isn't it happening at that familiar and oft-neglected place known as the public library?
"A couple thousand people come in each month just for the events," reports Connie Balcom, the community relations manager at the Har Mar store. While her location is a standout in the field ("Oh, you talked to Connie," another community relations manager says when I call. "We're not quite at her level yet"), its performance is also perfectly in line with the corporate blueprint. For the last six years, approximately since the rise of the library-sized, stay-and-read superstore, each Barnes & Noble has had a community relations manager whose sole responsibility is the creation of in-store and community-outreach programs. According to Debra Williams, B&N's New York-based director of corporate communications, the idea comes directly from CEO Leonard Riggio, the college dropout who bought an unprofitable textbook business in 1971 and built it into today's comfy-chair empire. It is a program that also enjoys ongoing support, with monthly meetings in which local CRMs and a regional manager trade tips and success stories.
Though the program was initiated as a way of managing author appearances and school outreach, the program has blossomed of its own accord into something far more broad-based and less obviously profit-driven, to the point that employees describe their stores in terms generally used for the public sector.
"[The store] functions as a community center," Balcom says. "It's informal. It doesn't involve liquor. It's welcoming for all ages. And everything we do is connected to our mission of arts literacy and education."
"It's a clean, safe, comfortable place for people to meet and have a dialogue," Williams echoes. "It's different from the bar scene. We get parents and kids who come here, teenagers who meet their friends after school and do their homework. Musical performances. Author events. Partnerships with local museums and theaters. It's really become a culture center."
Hype and corporatespeak aside, there really is something fascinating going on here that would feel very grassroots if it weren't sponsored by a billion-dollar business. None of the events I've witnessed seems to have anyone in charge. No one hovers, no one directs, no one lays down rules or hustles anybody out. No one even gives an introduction. Events seem to start of their own accord and end when they're finished.