Required Reading

Sun Staff

As the weather heats up, Baltimoreans will surely take refuge in the air-conditioned indoors. There's no better place to cool down than in your very own neighborhood super bookstore. It offers variety, comfort and more than one way to escape the weather.

To catch up on our summer reading, we visited the various outposts of the big two Bs in Baltimore -- Barnes & Noble and Borders. We found that -- in addition to having some great reads -- each has its own atmosphere, plot directions and character developments.

We also discovered that: people will try to read an entire Tom Clancy bestseller without paying for it, the cozy chairs nearest the restrooms are usually the first to go, and two double-iced lattes in one afternoon is never a good idea.

The stores have certain things in common, as well as many differences. We accounted for the usual: the price of a bestseller (in this case, Michael Ondaatje's, "Anil's Ghost"); the price of an iced latte, and the general feel and mood of the place; and we threw in some other scales for fun. For example, we noted how comfortable the armchairs are on a scale of 1-to-10 (hey, we were logging in a lot of reading time), and how clean the bathrooms are. We even tested the staff's 19th-century classic literature knowledge. After all the weird looks, caffeine buzzes and countless trips to the bathroom, we can say: we came, we browsed, we drank.

Below is your primer to the Baltimore bookstore scene. Happy reading!

Atmosphere: Open, airy, bright, relaxed feel with the sounds of Buena Vista Social Club playing.
Architecture: Large, open, one-floor space. This is the most industrial-looking space of all with the least nooks and crannies.
Crowd: Kids. Moms. More kids. More moms. It's a virtual Gymboree in here.
What to wear: Bring kneepads or your own stroller to deflect potential scraped legs. Or borrow your friend's child, so you'll be properly accessorized.
Coffee shop: Starbucks is in the back center of the store. This location seems more like a Starbucks emporium with a bookstore around it.
Price of iced skim latte: $2.85 plus tax.
Price of the new hardcover bestseller: $25 less 40 percent ($15).
Interesting cultural phenomenon: Female dominated, despite all the children.
Chair comfort: 10. The most comfortable of all -- hands down. Bonus points for creative groupings and tables for foot propping.
Number of steps from the chair to the bathroom: 12 from a quartet of armchairs.
Bathroom cleanliness: 8-9. Very clean. Plus, there is a much-needed baby-changing station.
It's a sweltering day nice touch: After selecting "Under the Tuscan Sun," you can carry the Italian theme by indulging in one of the luscious flavors of gelato. Flavors include pistachio, wild berry, tiramisu and caramel ($1.95-$2.95).
Magazine rules: 24 minutes and no problem. Benches that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Easy listening: No music section in this outpost of B&N. There are a few select CDs sold by the counter, but you can't listen to them.
Stump the staff: Who wrote "Middlemarch"? "That would be George Eliot. It's in literature. May I show you?"

Atmosphere: Relaxed, hip, surprisingly un-touristy.
Architecture: This is the coolest location, hands down. Built into the revitalized Power Plant, this store offers incredibly high ceilings, exposed pipes, a clear escalator, a huge smokestack rising in the center and 20-foot-high windows.
Crowd: Surprisingly, there are few tourists. There are many young art students who make the hike from Mount Vernon and some visiting well-dressed conference attendees.
What to wear: Your grungiest, post-Seattle coffee shop look, a linen dress or khakis. If you go during lunch, make like the downtown crowd and wear your best suit.
Coffee shop: Each B&N houses a Starbucks Cafe´.
Price of iced skim latte: $2.85 plus tax.
Price of the new hardcover bestseller: $25, less 40 percent ($15).
Nice touch: The coffee shop offers to ring up books for extra convenience. Also, a second-floor outside patio allows for fun tourist-watching all summer long.
Interesting cultural phenomenon: It's so inviting and lax, some patrons set up their dissertations or a picnic on the upstairs tables.
Chair comfort: 8-9; oversized, with tables in front for impolite foot propping. Plus a side table for your latte.
Number of steps from chair to the bathroom: Less than 10 from the cushy seats in front of the fish tank.
Bathroom cleanliness: 8 and well-stocked.
Coolest feature: The 5x15-foot fish tank on the second floor filled with thousands of bright swimmers.
Magazine rules: No time limit. We lingered for about 24 minutes. There were also 14 other people doing the same. There are five benches set up directly in front of the racks for easy reading.
Easy listening: The music section does have listening stations separated by new releases, classical, R&B, pop and country.
Stump the staff: Who wrote "Middlemarch"? Both young women at the information booth chimed in "George Eliot" and pointed me in the right direction. Then one called out, "But it was a woman who wrote it." It warmed my heart.

Barnes & Noble: Towson Circle
Atmosphere: Mellow, serene and relaxing. Jazz-fusion was playing when we stopped by.
Architecture: Open, two-floor design with escalators running up and down in the center. It resembles a department store with two entrances, which is no coincidence. The building used to house a Hoschild Kohn department store.
Crowd: Mostly students stocking up on the summer reading or professionals on break from Pennsylvania Avenue business offices. There were some graduate students, too.
What to wear: Tight black pants, backless tops, reading glasses, lacrosse T-shirts and shorts.
Coffee shop: Starbucks again. This one is set back with a lot of tables. The smell of scones can be detected everywhere.
Price of iced skim latte: $2.45
Price of the new hardcover bestseller: $25 less 40 percent ($15).
Interesting cultural phenomenon: This is the most people we've seen in one bookstore not reading books or even browsing. Customers tend to just roam and people-watch.
Chair comfort: 9. Very big, very soft and plenty of table space for magazines, purse, coffee mugs and feet.
Number of steps to bathroom: 11.
Bathroom cleanliness: 7-8. Big and clean.
Nice touch: Bathrooms are located directly behind the nature section. Plus: Holiday- or event-themed display tables.
Magazine rules: 25 minutes and no problem. Finding a bench can be difficult, though. The aforementioned college students spread out with the latest issues of "Talk" and "Vanity Fair."
Easy listening: There are listening stands, but the selection isn't as expansive as it is at other locations.
Stump the staff: Who wrote "Middlemarch"? "Let me look that up for you. One word? It's George Eliot. Oh, and there's a hardcover version in our bargain books." Wow!

Atmosphere: Quiet. Too quiet, actually. It was virtually empty on a weekday afternoon.
Architecture: Good layout with varying levels. The magazine room, literature section and non-fiction are found on the ground floor. The CDs are found on the basement level and the cafe´ and kids' fare are located on the second floor.
Crowd: We saw some college students who looked like they had just rolled out of bed and a few strollers with Yuppie moms attached.
What to wear: Your LAX shorts and T-shirts. Maybe a nice casual Talbots outfit for an outing with the kids.
Coffee shop: Borders features its own espresso bar.
Price of iced skim latte: $2.45.
Price of the new hardcover bestseller: $25 less 20 percent ($20).
Interesting cultural phenomenon: Towson Commons has become the mall that time forgot.
Chair comfort: 5-6; not as small as Bibelot, but not oversized by any means.
Number of steps from the chair to the bathroom: I stopped counting. From a chair or the espresso bar, the restroom seems to be miles away, and it is hard to locate because it's tucked in the corner of the children's side.
Bathroom cleanliness: 2-3. Very disappointing. Dirty floor and sinks, and there were paper towels strewn everywhere.
Coolest feature: Video section on the ground floor. "Mission Impossible" was playing the day we visited. Also, the children's section boasts a tiny stage, stuffed animals, crayons, paper and a bulletin board to post the tots' works of art.
Nice touch: The cafe features jazz groups every Friday night at 8 p.m.
Magazine rules: No rules. Lingered for about 20 minutes. Although it lacks the benches at B&N, Borders scores points for placing its periodicals in a separate sunken room. Most loungers were reading on the floor and looked perfectly content.
Easy listening: Self-serve CD stations available downstairs in the music department. A couple of the stands were missing some selections. The sound quality was good.
Stump the staff: Who wrote "Middlemarch"? Silence. "Let me look it up."

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