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BOOKING A DATE At Borders, readers snuggle up with a good book and a good friend

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You're not the kind of person who would be at a place like this on a Saturday night. But here you are, high on only the very legal Colombian espresso bean, talking about John Grisham to equally clear-headed people in a smoke-free atmosphere.

With apologies to once-hot novelist Jay McInerney, it has come to this: Bright lights, big bookstore.

It's the natural evolution of things, of course, as we head toward the millennium. The singles bar of the '70s gave way to the health club of the '80s which led inevitably to the bookstore of the '90s.

Borders, the multi-tiered and blindingly-lit book and music superstore in Towson, has become a magnet for weekend browsing of the social sort. It's open late -- well, 11 p.m. -- and perfectly situated for those who once club-hopped but now are content to merely movie-restaurant-and-shop-hop.

You barely have to touch pavement at this corner of York Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, what with Towson Commons movie complex connecting to Borders connecting to parking garages connecting to restaurants which range from the relentlessly cheerful Mick's to the chic-aspiring Paolo's.

"I wouldn't go to half the places you go to," one thirtyish man is telling several women who were relating their Friday night foray first to the Cross Street Market (too crowded) in Federal Hill and ultimately to Sisson's brew pub (pleasantly packed).

One woman shrugs and says she knows someone who got mugged right across the street here, so what are you going to do?

You stay home or, if you still have a flicker of sociability in your cocooning soul, you go to Borders, that's what. Weekends are the busiest nights here, with live music on Fridays and general date-night, drop-in-after-the-movies on Saturdays.

At a time when danger seems to lurk all around, when sex has to be safe and drivers have to be designated, what could be safer and more sober on a Saturday night than a bookstore and coffee bar?

It's a phenomenon that has followed Borders, once a single college bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich., now a chain of superstores, across the country. With its cushy couches and quiet corners and the kind of corporate attitude that not only allows but encourages browsing for hours on end, it's a low-pressure and comfortable hangout.

"If you're looking in the history aisle and you see someone else there," says Debbie Middlestadt, the community relations coordinator for the Towson store, "you already have something in common."

The store, which opened a little more than a year ago, has developed a reputation as a place to meet people, although it seems more of a place to go with someone, rather than ISO someone, she says.

Indeed, this past Saturday night seemed to bring out those already in various stages of coupledom: the early, giggly stage, in which books like "2002 Things To Do on a Date" are infinitely amusing; themiddle, in which you arrive together, head toward different sections of the store and reunite at the cash register; and the inevitable terminal stage in which you share a table at the espresso bar but read your own books like some sort of grumpy old married couple at breakfast at home.

"When I was in school, this was a place to come on a date," says Joe Tobin, 22, a bookseller who graduated from Loyola last May. "Friday and Saturday nights are the best nights to work. The people who come in are people who would rather spend their time here than in some bar. It's a relaxed and intelligent atmosphere."

The store draws all age groups, from twentysomethings in barn jackets and boots to their elders in leather bomber jackets and jeans, on up.

Getting younger

With the store having recently opened a CD and tapes section, the crowd seems even younger, the rock aisles the liveliest and country and classical aisles rather empty.

More recent music, of this century at least, is piped in here, in contrast to the classical music you usually get in the book areas, and you'll have to fight the teen-agers for one of six listening headsets that play music from several CDs and from the video on television.

The later the better for adult mixing. Before 8 p.m. or so, the rug rat set still commandeers much of the second floor, home to a vast children's section. Mommies saddled with doggie bags from Mick's are still squawking, "Well, should we get the Barney's coloring book then?" and children are still ignoring them.

The vast store -- it boasts some 150,000 titles over 25,000 square feet -- neatly divides itself via ramps, so it makes for easy cruising.

Some sections, though, just don't make for good browsing: The games section, hard by the espresso bar, would seem a likely aisle for eyeing both customers and for a table about to clear, but it attracts too many prepubescent Nintendo and Mortal Kombat types.

The sports section seems to draw attractive youngish men, but it turns out it's like the television department at Sears on any weekend: That's where the married men go while the womenfolk are shopping elsewhere. Eventually, a woman will turn up and reclaim her wandering partner.

And then there is the self-help section. Sigh. You pass by and see all sorts of attractive women, but they're reading about eating disorders and incest survival. If you were to strike up a conversation, would you be enabling or co-depending?

Travel -- ah, now there's a subject worth pursuing. First, though, you have to avoid the couples already planning trips, presumably a deux, like the pair sitting Indian style, their blue-jeaned knees touching intimately. The better bet is the travel essay section with its endless books on Provence and other adventurous journeys.

You may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but you can generally tell the section by its customers. Rather soulful, professorial types tend to gather in the religion and philosophy -- sections. Psychic-Friends, infomercial-vulnerable sorts are over with the astrology books. And the busy magazine section? Hmmm, if they can't commit to even an entire book . . .

The best sellers

The most gregarious people seem to hang out in the best sellers corner -- if you want to strike up a conversation about "The Firm" or "The Client" or "The Pelican Brief," and wonder which one you saw a movie of, head here.

(Artier film talk -- say, about "The Piano," -- appropriately goes on in the real literature section.)

You'll find women here fondling the two Robert James Waller novels. "So many people have them, you can just borrow instead of buying," one woman advises a friend.

"You watch this show?" a man who came in with them asks, holding up a copy "Seinlanguage," TV comic Jerry Seinfeld's best seller. Of course -- and the masturbation episode was the best, one of the women says. She read the entire book waiting in line for a table in the coffee bar, she adds, and it was hilarious.

By 10:45 p.m., the magazine section is littered with mail-in subscription cards from the magazines that have been thumbed to death. Coffee mugs are scattered beyond the overflowing espresso bar, and the intercom is announcing last call -- for book purchases.

The lights don't blink, and everyone seems to be going home with whomever they came in with.

"I've heard," Ms. Middlestadt offers helpfully, "the Borders in Stamford [Conn.] is a singles hangout."

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