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It's choosing what the nation chooses is Baltimore the City that reads?

Baltimoreans like mysteries, especially those with female protagonists. They also love Michael Crichton and John Grisham, and will read almost anything about baseball. Black writers have a large and loyal following. As for the magazine rack, in many area homes it will likely include TV Guide and Reader's Digest, and perhaps a copy of Salt Water Sportsman as well.

These are a few of the reading preferences of Baltimore-area residents revealed in a random survey of area libraries and bookstores. Baltimoreans' reading tastes are predominantly middle of the road: popular fiction and books by big-name authors, according to those interviewed. And if a book is a best seller nationally, it will sell well in The City That Reads.

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"We're very similar to the popular demand nationally," says Jean Jacocks, who has bought fiction books for the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library for the past 20 years. "That means John Grisham -- any of his books -- and Michael Crichton."

Like "The Firm" and "Jurassic Park" movies, other media can boost interest in a book, she says. Figure that when "The Age of Innocence" and "The Joy Luck Club" hit the big screen, people went to the library to check out the book on which the movie was based. Television plays a part, too: When Oprah Winfrey plugs a book on her show -- as she did with "The Bridges of Madison County" and "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind" -- the Pratt sees an immediate increase in requests for it.

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"We also get a lot of requests for black writers," Ms. Jacocks continues. "Terry McMillan is probably the most requested of the black writers, and there are a lot of requests for the Walter Moseley mystery series."

Mary Paulus, who helps buy most of the 1,100 fiction books annually for the Baltimore County library system, says county readers also follow national trends. But there's one interesting // trend: "Mysteries are extremely popular, and series featuring women private eyes are even more so."

That's no surprise to Paige Rose, co-owner of the Mystery Loves Company bookstore in Fells Point. "We sell a tremendous amount of books with women's protagonists, written by women -- [Sue] Grafton, Linda Barnes, Sara Paretsky."

Not surprisingly, in a baseball town such as Baltimore, books on the National Pastime are brisk sellers.

Jo Blankenburg, manager of Waldenbooks at Towson Town Center, cites "Rex Barney's THANK Youuuu," Peter Richmond's

"Ballpark" (which is about the building of Oriole Park at Camden Yards" and "The Book of Baltimore Orioles Lists" as current favorites.

Melvin Gordon, owner of the local Gordon's Booksellers chain, says his readers also snap up baseball books -- "sales are getting stronger every year." However, he notes wistfully, "Hardly anyone buys football books anymore." (Presumably that could change if the city does obtain a National Football League expansion franchise in a few weeks.)

But even if Baltimore is The City That Reads books, it doesn't spend a lot of money on them. Mr. Gordon, whose chain has four stores and has operated in the area for 40 years, says, "If you're asking me if people buy books or if they read, there is a difference. The Baltimore buying public is up to the average. It's not a Boston or a Washington, D.C., or a Seattle."

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According to the most recent figures from the American Booksellers Association, from 1987, households in the Boston metropolitan area spent an average of $158.19 per year on books; Washingtonians spent $109.43 and Seattle residents $106.91. The average bookstore sales per household in its 50 largest markets averaged $57.17, the ABA says. The Baltimore metropolitan area spent $56.38.

JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of the Children's Book Store in Roland Park, confirms Mr. Gordon's assessment.

"As a book consumer in general, I think it's too bad that the city doesn't support bookstores," she says. "I don't know why. The community is intelligent and reads, but doesn't buy books."

But while Baltimoreans are spending less, they have more bookstores. The ABA says the 50 cities contained an average of 1.24 bookstores per 10,000 households; Baltimore had 1.4.

Overall, Baltimore ranked 20th in total sales, at $47.9 million, but was 35th in terms of bookstore sales per household dollars. Baltimore's per-person outlay of $56.38 that year came nowhere near the No. 1 buyers in Austin, Tex., who spent $195.86.

One possible reason for Baltimore's low spending average per bookstore is its fondness for paperback books, which sell for less than hardcover copies. Spokeswoman Debbie Middlestadt says the Borders "superstore" in Towson ranks first in trade paperback sales among the 13 stores that comprise the chain's Northeast sales region, from New York to Northern Virginia.

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Magazine readers in Baltimore also reflect national tastes, according to statistics provided by the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the first six months of 1993. Modern Maturity, a publication of the American Association of Retired People, is the No. 1 magazine nationally with a circulation of 22,398,630, and in Baltimore nearly a quarter of households -- 238,932 homes, or 24.6 percent -- receive it. (It should be noted that one reason for Modern Maturity's high readership is that it is sent free to all members of AARP.)

Second nationally is Reader's Digest, followed by TV Guide, National Geographic and Better Homes & Gardens. That's true in Baltimore, too, except that TV Guide leads Reader's Digest (21.2 percent of households to 14.6 percent). Obviously, they keep the television on in the city.

But there are some interesting choices in magazines, the ABC statistics reveal. The Baltimore area represents only 1.03 percent of households nationally, but Salt Water Sportsman has 2.16 of its circulation in this area -- understandable, given the city's proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

And don't accuse Baltimoreans of putting on airs. The tony Town & Country had a circulation of but 3,872 in the area; it was outsold substantially by Hot Rod (6,868) and Guns & Ammo (4,637).


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