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Musicians begin new chapter in bookstores Performers using chains as venues to promote work


Jazz guitarist Damon Foreman has played gigs all over the country -- Las Vegas, San Diego, Miami, New York -- but he always comes home to Columbia.

The 44-year-old New Jersey native, who has lived with his family in Howard County for 14 years, likes Columbia's lifestyle and its proximity to Baltimore and Washington.

What he doesn't like so much is that getting a gig at a club or bar close to home is difficult.

Though Howard County's arts scene is considered healthy, diverse and thriving, local musicians have traditionally had to go to Baltimore's Fells Point or downtown Washington to play.

That may be changing, thanks in part to Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Ellicott City's Long Gate shopping center and Borders Books & Music on Snowden River Parkway in Columbia.

Playing before an audience of about 100 at Barnes & Noble or Borders, with their couches, tables, overstuffed chairs and coffee bars, "is good for publicity," Foreman says. "You have to be willing to play for nothing or next to nothing, but it's good local promotion, and I always see a spike in the sales of my CD after a performance."

Bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders are parts of national chains, but each store is given freedom to organize its events.

Cindy Arnold, community relations manager for Barnes & Noble in Ellicott City, says the store's regular Sunday afternoon musical performances are well attended and increasingly popular.

Musicians are 'bonus'

"Our customers seem to really like having musicians in the store," Arnold says. "They're not looking for anything that's going to interrupt their shopping. They're usually in to read, browse around, chat with friends, that sort of thing. Having music in the store is a bonus in that environment."

The Sunday music shows have been received so well that customers request repeat performances from particular musicians, Arnold says.

Musicians who play jazz, blues, classical guitar and world beat music are particularly popular.

"We try to choose music that's soothing and uplifting," Arnold says. "It's got to be appropriate. We wouldn't put a rock band in a bookstore."

Good exposure

Neither Borders nor Barnes & Noble pays for the performances, which range from an hour to 90 minutes, but musicians usually get free refreshments and discounts on books or compact discs.

Made Mantle Hood, a musician in the Ellicott City-based trio Nada Brahma, says playing in bookstores gives musicians exposure to a wide audience.

"Playing bookstores is great for us because it allows us to play for those people who don't go to nightclubs until the wee hours of the morning," Hood says. "It's a nice atmosphere because books require people to slow down and browse. They can tune you in or out at will."

Coffeehouse elements

The book "superstores" in places such as Columbia and Ellicott City offer some elements of Beat Generation coffeehouses, with poetry readings, book readings and espresso cafes.

Retailers say bookstores in the 1990s must operate on a much bigger scale to compete. National chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders operate football-field-size stores that draw crowds in major cities and in suburbs, where the stores often anchor shopping centers that house other big stores such as Target, Old Navy, Best Buy and Hechinger.

'One of our outlets'

Baltimore-based New Age musician David Bach says playing bookstores can work to everyone's advantage.

"As an artist, you want to record and sell your own music," says Bach, who heads the David Bach Consort, a five-piece ensemble. "Before you know it, there are 2,000 CDs in your basement, and you have no way to get the word out about them."

Playing bookstores, he says, "can help that process a great deal, especially if the store has done a good job of promoting your appearance."

Nada Brahma's Hood says playing Borders and Barnes & Noble gives bands "a chance to have your voice heard over 10,000 other CDs sitting on the shelves.

"There aren't a lot of venues in Howard County; bookstores are just one of our outlets."

Pub Date: 12/31/98

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