Basics Instinct

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They are about everything, and they are about nothing. They are for the truly clueless or the completely overwhelmed. They are fashion and lifestyle books devoted to telling you everything you ever wanted to know, and then some, about a single pressing subject, be it the shirt and tie, desks and candles, packing and storage or bath and body.

The people who put out these books, the publishers and "authors" who don't necessarily write the volumes but produce the script for the printed package, say they plugged into the need of a society that was ready to simplify but craved an expert resource to guide them down the path. Others view the burgeoning genre as an extension of coffee-table books, the perennially popular gift tied together with lots of pictures and easy-to-swallow advice.

To hear the publisher tell it, the Chic Simple series of books, which just published its 20th volume, "Work Clothes," was the first to capitalize on a back-to-basics lifestyle movement when Knopf printed the first volume, "Clothes," in 1993. One million books in the series are in print.

"They were a little ahead of the curve. This whole idea of paring down to the basics has seized the public," and is reflected in the popularity of Banana Republic or J. Crew, says Philip Patrick, manager of series advertising and promotion for Knopf.

Jeff Stone says he and co-creator Kim Johnson Gross set out to do a series of books that would analyze the "big, basic building blocks of life." Even he has been "mystified" by their appeal, but he thinks they fill a void caused by a mobile society where no one knows their next-door neighbor and lives too far away to ask their mother or anyone else for advice. (Claremont psychologist Cathleen Brown says she thinks Stone has come up with a clever marketing approach that appeals to the insecure among us.)

An author of another new series of books views them more as poetry meant to inspire the reader to view the subject another way or, perhaps, as a way for people with no time for hobbies to pretend they have them. Give a friend who enjoys candles a book on the same, and an offbeat candle collection is validated, Sara Slavin says.

The San Francisco author has put together two "Elements of the Table" books for HarperCollins, one on linens and another on candles, with loads of dreamy pictures and lots of oversized type. Judging from her book signings, many of them are being purchased as gift books. Up next: An ode to flowers and centerpieces, and a tome on silver, china and glassware.

"I think that people like to delve into a subject and see all the permutations and how broad an envelope you can make. The public seems to be gravitating toward single-subject books," says Slavin, who is "a little over 50." "I hate to use the 'nesting' word but that's really what's happening. People are sick of going out to dinner. They want their friends to be in their homes. It seems that that is the trend, to really concentrate on your own personal space and bring your friends into it."

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Carolyn M. Gatto, vice president and editor in chief of Woman's Day Special Interest Publications, has seen the Chic Simple books pour into her New York office but has not been moved to read them. "I think the covers are striking, but who would want a whole book on eyeglasses?

"This is possibly a gift for the truly lazy gift-giver," Gatto says with a laugh. Ranging from $12.50 for a book about the size of your hand to $30 for the popular "Women's Wardrobe," Chic Simple's advice does not come cheap. One more reason you might give your best friend with a shoe fetish the volume on "Accessories" while picking up a $3.95 magazine for your fashion fix.

Chic Simple's Stone admits that the concept of a complete book devoted to "Scents" or "Cooking Tools" is rife for parody. "It's so easy to poke fun at us. It's like I want to do the Spy magazine piece first. It is what it is. We try to make it as legitimate and simple as we can."

They strive for a balance, to "produce something we are proud of but has fun and information combined. These books are about what they are about," says Stone, 43. "That's it. I don't mean to get Zen on you. They don't take care of Bosnia or your weight problem." Next year, they plan to do a number on the face and makeup, men's wardrobe, and entertaining.

Stone partly pins the popularity of the books to a changing notion of personal style. "One of the most key things, the byproducts of living in an age of material abundance, is that any concept of scarcity or uniqueness becomes more valuable, and so I think people are more interested in personal style. Lifestyle is morphing into personal style," he says.

The need for help creating that style is why single people might buy these books, says Teri Lockett, 28, of Chatsworth, who instantly recognized the Chic Simple series as "the coordination books" when asked about them during her shift as a server at the Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Woodland Hills. "People are so into fashion. If someone is telling them what goes together, why not buy them?" she asks.

Marilyn Levy, 48, of Sherman Oaks, out for the evening to take in a movie with friends, was blisteringly critical of the picture books she thought were aimed at people with too much disposable income. Comparing them to the ultimate useless fad, pet rocks, she says, "This is for cretins and morons. Why wouldn't you just look at a catalog? They now need a picture book section in the library."

According to Paul Hilts, an editor at Publisher's Weekly, Levy's observation is uncomfortably close to the truth. Only about 3% of the American public reads more than four books a year, a number that has remained steady for at least six years, so publishing is changing to come up with a product that will sell, he says.

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The single-subject books also tie into this year's "huge trend" in publishing, where specialty titles are marketed in related stores. A camping store might stock trail guides, for instance, or a book with dressing hints would be marketed at a TJ Maxx, Hilts says.

"These are not the standard distribution channels, so nobody knows what to make of them," he says, adding that he and his colleagues sit around their New York offices and wonder if the dumbing down of America can be partly blamed for what has been a horrid year for book sales.

The preponderance of the single-subject picture books "doesn't bode well for literacy," he says.

The concept is not so anti-literary as it is pro-simplicity, Stone says. "We were thinking about the big, basic building blocks of life. . . . People seem to want less in their lives, which has lead to a curiosity: If you are only going to have one sweater, which one will it be?

"Anybody who lived through the '80s was subject to style confusion, exposed to everything from Santa Fe to Armani. They ask themselves, 'How do I fit it into my life?' All we've tried to do is take it out of the style arena and make it more about objects," Stone says.

Books like these are mirroring a larger trend in society to break problems down into small, manageable pieces regardless of the challenge, says psychologist Brown. Setting the table with the right amount of elan? How to make the most of $80 silk scarf? It's all right here in book form, and "most of us are used to getting our information from books that tell us how to do everything," she says.

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