OUT AND ABOUT : That's Entertainment

It was a scene worthy of Oscar night. A worshipful crowd of 700 awaited vampire-chronicler Anne Rice as she stepped down from a black limousine, elegantly attired in a black satin dress, for the signing of her latest book, "Memnoch the Devil," at Dutton's Brentwood Books.

This was 5 p.m. on Sept. 8. Many had been there since the store opened at 9 a.m.--a grueling wait even for those who donated blood at the American Red Cross Bloodmobile, thus earning a place at the head of the line.

All this at a bookstore? you may well ask incredulously.

Yet Dutton's Anne Rice production is just one wild and wacky example of the transformation of readings from low-key literary events into peppy mini-entertainments.

"This is Los Angeles," said Lise Friedman, Dutton's special events coordinator. (Yes, most bookstores have one.) "Unless it's a celebrity or someone who's really moved them, like Amy Tan, people won't just go out to a plain reading. You have to do a little extra to get people in."

She's echoed by other bookstore owners, some coming dangerously close to the old stereotype of Los Angeles as an over-entertained, no-brain, lite-lite town. The truth is surely more complicated. For plenty of literature-loving Los Angelenos show up for the pure, unadorned product at bookstores like Midnight Special, Sisterhood and A Different Light, the Lannan Foundation's readings and conversations, and the Central Library's series.

The growth of eccentric events has more to do with the nationwide mushrooming of super-stores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. Now bookstores everywhere wield well-baited hooks to pull in more customers--especially non-literary readers--with gimmicky readings and signings by authors of cookbooks and other, previously little-advertised, lifestyle books.

Indeed, a quick tour of greater Los Angeles revealed that any subject, ethereal or earthy, is grist for the bookstores' entertainment mill. Karen Goldman ("Angel Encounters") told her Borders/West Hollywood audience about kindly angels popping down from heaven to help people out. Allison Mia Starcher ("Good Bugs for Your Garden") hauled in her "tub of bugs" and a big container of bug-attracting plants for a hands-on demonstration in Dutton's courtyard. And Pasadena's Barnes & Noble played host to Anita Jones ("Healthy Dining in Los Angeles"), who lured more than 100 browsers into the cookbook section to hear her food philosophy--and to nibble free samples from health conscious restaurants.

Clearly these events bring more people into bookstores. Some may even buy books. But will they read them? Will entertainment turn people into literature lovers? Should we care? It's that old uneasy rubbing of shoulders between popular culture and high art. Let them coexist, I say. And may all well-stocked bookstores thrive. As for Halloween, I'm going to bed early with that perennial, Elizabethan spine-chiller, "Macbeth."

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