A Cultural Center With a Cash Register

Knight takes pawn: Programs like Wednesday chess night at the Har Mar Barnes & Noble draw the public into a retail setting
David Kern

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.

On one Wednesday night in December, for example, chess players arrive in ones and twos and take tables in a corner of the café. Fifteen minutes later, a dozen-odd games are up and running, and a handful of spectators drift from table to table, following a game or waiting for a slot to open up. As matches conclude, the players stand and shake hands; one steps away from the table to let another take his place. From time to time, players might approach a bookseller to ask for a board; just as often, they use or borrow one that someone has brought from home. As the end of the two-hour time slot approaches, the number of games diminishes; a bookseller collects the signs reserving the tables, and customers with books and coffee begin to fill the tables as they open.

Balcom, who keeps track, can tell you that a large number of the chess players are Asian or Indian males who have jobs in technology and speak German, a collection of facts that makes her laugh because they're seemingly so random. At the same time, there are also several boys under 15 years old (including a nine-year-old whose mother comes to claim him at 9:00 p.m.), retired men, and two college girls who stick close to the two college guys they're with. Over time, chess night has developed a core of regulars.

"Every once in a while someone famous will show up--someone famous in the chess world, that is--and word gets out," she says. "People call each other on their cell phones, and we get a really big crowd that shows up here to watch."

Such a hands-off approach has encouraged at least some of the groups to take on a life beyond the superstore that spawned them. Balcom recalls the night the Italian conversation group did just that.

"One night, nobody came to the Italian group," she says, the disappointment evident in her voice. "And up until then it had been growing and had seemed popular. And I ran into one of the members in the grocery store, and I commented that no one had shown up, and how strange it seemed. And she said, 'Oh, Connie, we had a big party.' And it turned out that one of the members who lived up on Summit Avenue in one of those big houses had had everyone over for a big meal."

No one denies that these programs are the byproducts of corporate profiteering. ("We find that people say: 'I came in for a cup of coffee and I walked out with $50 worth of books,'" Williams reports.) Same goes for the pleasant lighting, the classical music in the background, and the fact that no one will ask you whether you're planning to buy those magazines you've been reading for hours. In the first nine months of 1999, Barnes & Noble saw a 9.3 percent increase in sales to $2.16 billion. Since the end of fiscal 1998, it has added 45 superstores, for a total of nearly 1,000 nationwide.

And you can bet your Melville that if this trend reversed and current business methods stopped generating sales and started generating freeloaders, B&N's community programs would be yanked faster than you can say latte.

What's more, as a private business, B&N reserves the right to give the boot to anyone they choose, for any reason, a prerogative upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision last spring in a case involving fur protesters and the Mall of America. "Property [does not] lose its private character merely because the public is generally invited to use it," the court opined. "While the public is invited to many privately owned places to shop, dine, or be entertained, the invitation creates only a license which may be revoked."

This raises the intriguing question of how B&N might respond if its clients took their unstructured forums and the presence of all those books as a license to exercise intellectual freedom. What would happen to the Military History group, for instance, if a few Holocaust revisionists began using the meeting as a soapbox for their views, or if the Journeys of Faith discussion led to a public spat over abortion rights--or, less dramatic, if a speaker at French night occasionally employed racially insensitive language?  

"Within any genre, there are people who are highly opinionated," Balcom says, citing a faction in the mystery group that would prefer to read only British writers. "But so far we haven't had any tirades. We haven't had any picketers." She adds that a format based on selected books, and the presence of volunteer moderators in each of the groups has helped to keep the discussion on an even keel.

Yet a tactfully managed oversight system does not equal a corporate commitment to tolerating the outer limits of public expression. Programs might be free, the bookstore might be a "culture center," and sneaking a Subway sandwich into the café might be tolerated, but the implied understanding is that services are provided for paying customers who abide by an enforceable commercial contract.

"In light of the Supreme Court decision--and because of the shortsightedness of the Minnesota Supreme Court--individuals who are in a space that's open to the public generally have no rights at all except not to be assaulted," says civil rights attorney Larry Leventhal, who represented the fur protesters. "Everybody in any place regardless of purpose is there by the [sufferance] of the people who own the place. They can tell you what you can do, what you can say, how you can dress--and dictate every other right of public expression."


There remains a place that is steadfastly committed to free speech and staying open to all patrons, of course: the public library. But several conversations with library personnel have led me to conclude that the library has either overlooked the success of B&N's programming or failed to see it as relevant. At present, library programming for adults tends to be for spectators rather than participants: seminars on how to use the Web, an Armchair Traveler series (slide shows presented by area residents), and music events. (A well-attended henna-tattoo tutorial is a prominent exception.) And the great preponderance of events is directed toward children. The give-and-take dynamic operating at the superstore, not to mention the book-based focus, is largely absent. Interesting, too, is the fact that none of the library-sponsored book clubs meets at the library; perhaps more interesting, several meet at the Galleria Barnes & Noble.

At the same time there exists an awareness within the library system that the rise of the superstore model poses something of a challenge. In 1998, a Los Angeles County librarian shook up his public-minded industry when he published an article in American Libraries suggesting that libraries could learn from the chain-bookstore model. He called it: "What's Wrong with More Service Hours, Bigger Collections, and Great Coffee?"

When asked about the response to his article, Steve Coffman laughs. "You've got no idea," he says. "American Libraries is the primary trade journal in this field. And they told me they had not had more letters and communication on any other issue in the last 50 years. And 90 percent of it was negative from a library point of view."

According to Coffman's article, it costs about 30 percent more to run a branch library than it does to run a Barnes & Noble that carries the same number of titles. And yet a Barnes & Noble stays open 98 hours a week with a staff of 34 while a typical branch library stays open about 63 hours with 32 employees--most of those hours during the workweek when vast numbers of people can't visit. (For a discussion of hours, see "Overdue Books," December 29, 1999.)

"Staffing is the critical issue," he says, "because that's where most of the money goes--not to books." In Minneapolis this is certainly true: In fiscal year 1998, expenditures on books, periodicals, and nonprint items accounted for 13 percent of the total monies spent. Salaries, including benefits and pensions, accounted for 73.5 percent.

Despite the money spent to staff libraries with scads of highly trained reference librarians, Coffman explains, about 69 percent of patrons who enter libraries nationally never ask a reference question. "For the general public, when you tell them they can ask a question, they're amazed," he says. "Many people would never know the difference if we stopped offering reference services tomorrow." Coffman also has something to say about the quality of reference questions that people ask--many of which could be answered by a library page with an Internet terminal and access to the card catalog.

Coffman's modest proposal calls for using the pages already on staff (who are paid wages equivalent to those of bookstore employees) to help people find books and answer questions about authors, titles, and literature, freeing reference librarians to do only the more technical work they were trained to do and allowing for a greater spread of hours as a result. (His countless other ideas include a call-in reference-center model; an expanded electronic catalog built on the Amazon model, with links to book reviews and to Web sites; and a good, hard look at the Dewey Decimal system, which drives up the cost of books--it costs about $100 to properly catalog a title--without necessarily being more efficient.)  

"Look," he says, "a substantial portion of the money is going into a system that serves a relatively small portion of your customer base," he says. "And so the question is not whether or not to get rid of those services, but whether there are better ways of doing that."

The Minneapolis library system, too, has glanced at the bookstores for clues as it plans its future. For various reasons, Minneapolis public library circulation has dropped 16 percent in the past decade (though video circulation is up by close to 70 percent). The Minneapolis Public Library Outlook 2010 report (available online at www.mpls.lib.mn.us/2010.html) explains: "As a place for people to spend time, the library is losing its edge as commercial establishments offer attractive destinations in contrast to libraries suffering from overcrowded conditions....Browsing and reading in the library is not as pleasant as it could be, due to the lack of comfortable and inviting chairs and sofas....Quiet, calm spaces are difficult to provide."

In response, the report's authors suggest up to $26 million in capital improvements, including 68,000 square feet of new library construction, 90,000 square feet of new and remodeled space added onto existing libraries. This is separate from the proposed $123 million renovation of the downtown library--plans that might include a hotel and transit hub.

It's not hard to agree with such recommendations. The downtown library is dated, dingy, and poorly lit; the only soft spots to sit are in the children's section. You have to stand to use many of the Internet terminals, the wooden chairs and desks are strictly public-sector issue, and most fellow patrons look like they're there under duress--whether because they're doing onerous research or because they have nowhere else to go. The Walker library in Uptown and the Northeast Library are stuck in the era of drab-on-drab color schemes and industrial carpeting, and feel (or are) subterranean.

And yet, having spent so much time at B&N lately, and having seen the way that this commercial entity not only makes books accessible, engaging, and maybe even hip, but also builds communities around those books, I can't help but think that, in the midst of all these grand plans, perhaps the library has missed a cue.

Maybe it's the customer-service model versus the public service model. While I love the reference librarians for all they've done--given me a full biography when I had only a quote and a last name; verified countless, random statistics; found the complete lyrics to "Time in a Bottle" (okay, so I was a sappy 16-year-old and it was Valentine's Day)--it seems I can't go to the library without being directed. Don't sit that way on the chair. Watch your purse. Be careful--there's a man looking up women's skirts. Have you been on the Internet for a half-hour? You know other people are waiting to use it. And perhaps it's wrong to demand retail-level cheer from everyone, but library employees often seem to demonstrate a vague disdain for the questions I'm asking--like an otolaryngologist asked to demonstrate the proper use of a Q-Tip, or anyone whose intelligence is routinely misused.

Or maybe it's just that I have seen the library of the future--the library that has taken its cue from B&N--and I have found it wanting.

The Hennepin County Library system, which serves the western suburbs, is several years ahead of the Minneapolis Public Library system in the process of reorganization and renovation. Last year both Brooklyn Park and Golden Valley's libraries were significantly remodeled, planning for the Brookdale Area Library's expansion commenced, and Edina and Wayzata agreed to replace their existing buildings. In winter 1999 a study published in American Libraries proclaimed HCL the second-best public library system in the nation among libraries serving populations over 500,000. Its Web site received more than one million hits in 1999, garnering a "Site of the Month" nomination on LibrarySpot.com this September. Then this fall, after two years of extensive renovation, the Ridgedale Library reopened, becoming what Nancy Perron, the manager of the community relations division at HCL calls "the most fully realized of the high-tech, high-touch libraries in the region right now."

Set off Ridgedale Drive behind the Ridgedale Mall, the beautifully designed building resembles a mall itself, or the REI on 494: Gazing at its big windows, I half expected to encounter a climbing wall amid the stacks. Upstairs, there is a space for the Dunn Bros. coffee shop that will open this spring. And inside, the library has tasteful Restoration Hardware-style green walls; around the perimeter, comfy chairs face out toward floor-to-ceiling windows that reveal trees and a lake.  

Most prominent from the entrance are the 100-plus computer workstations, a big bank near the door with smaller pods scattered throughout the open-plan room. According to Perron, one in three library users doesn't have access to computers at home or at work. Of the remaining two-thirds, a significant portion has only limited access. In any light, the library's store of free technology is impressive. Log onto any of the computers, and HCL's home page comes up, with links to a KidLinks page that includes resources and software coordinated to match that found in area schools; a TeenLinks page; LawLinks; ResourceLinks; and book recommendations.

There was something unusual about this library beyond how fantastic it looked, but it took me awhile to put my finger on it. I had come to the Ridgedale Library on a Saturday afternoon to find an old Sallie Tisdale article about the growing obsolescence of libraries. (Here's a question: A librarian is duty-bound to help you find the materials and statistics you're looking for, even if they might potentially disparage the library. Would Barnes & Noble stock a book disparaging Barnes & Noble?) It was my first visit, and I admired the large parking lot, the up-to-the minute colors, the view, the seating, the clean bathrooms. A librarian took me to find the Harpers back issue I wanted, then pointed me to the copying machines. I passed a mom with a four-year-old on her lap, helping him type on a computer in the children's section. I passed two rows of video machines, where five little girls sat in matching headsets in front of three screens playing different movies. I passed computer labs, quiet rooms, and tables of solo teenagers doing homework. I got my photocopy, and turned to leave.

As I stood inside the door, I wondered why I wasn't planning to linger, when I'll happily hang around a bookstore for hours. You see people doing this at Barnes & Noble all the time, reading the most eclectic assortments of books: Positive Parenting A to Z and 238 Great Hairstyles; a GMAT Study Guide, The Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness; The Good Spell Book, and The Comprehensive School Health Challenge.

Here no one in my direct line of vision was reading anything but a computer screen. All the books--the one, old-fashioned asset all libraries have in spades--sat in their shelves, spines out, in a kind of suspended animation. In the library of the future, there was not a book in sight.

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