Three-year-old Sarah Snyder found her spot on the crowded stage at the Borders bookstore in Annapolis, surrounded by a dozen other toddlers. A little girl reminded the storyteller not to get too loud. Then, everyone settled into a literary trance.
Borders, Barnes & Noble and other book superstores are becoming the town squares of strip mall suburbia, joining libraries, parks and museums atop the list of prime destinations for parents with hours to kill and tots to entertain. For many parents, book shopping has changed from an errand to an outing.
Parents such as Cathy McQueney, here with son Will, often shop, get a coffee or read with children at bookstores. One chain executive says parents spend two hours each visit.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
During the winter holidays, when the aisles are thick with gift shoppers, a well-attended story time can cause stroller gridlock.
"You come in and you smell coffee and baked goods. It's a very inviting environment," said Sarah's mother, Terry Snyder, of Arnold in Anne Arundel County.
Snyder and other parents across the region said they build weekday play dates around excursions to these gymnasium-size stores, whose carpeted children's sections alone dwarf the bookstores of the past. Weekly story times sometimes are spiced up with song, dance, crafts and costumed characters.
The modern role of bookstores as public gathering places is not, of course, limited to parents of small children. Book superstores first appeared about 1990 and have since fanned out across suburbia. At first they beckoned to young adults as coffeehouse, student union and library rolled into one. Parents took notice.
The average customer stays for about an hour, according to Barnes & Noble chief executive Steve Riggio. Parents often stay for two hours.
"We try to make the stores comfortable places. I think people feel it's their second home," said Riggio, whose brother, Leonard, reinvented Barnes & Noble three decades ago by infusing the stodgy chain with a touch of Greenwich Village co-op. "It's the heart of our concept."
Children's hardcover books are the fastest-growing segment of the company's book business, Riggio said, and story times are part of the reason.
Across the industry, juvenile book sales more than doubled to $1.1 billion from 1992 to 2003, according to the Association of American Publishers. Sales of children's books, which include the Harry Potter series, outpaced several adult literary categories in that time.
"If you think about how clever Barnes & Noble and Borders are: While they are effectively baby-sitting your children, you have two hours of uninterrupted book shopping," said Paula Quint, president of the Children's Book Council, based in New York.
The children's sections at book superstores borrow techniques heavily from public libraries; librarians, after all, have read stories to children for generations, and independent bookstores picked up the practice well before the superstores arrived.
Susan Hall of Arnold said she prefers Barnes & Noble to the library, though "I don't walk out with $50 worth of books if I go to the library." She watched on a recent morning as daughter Anicah, 4, wearing an engineer's cap, joined wooden Thomas train cars on a knee-high table at the store in Annapolis.
"I drop them off at the train table, I do my stuff, and I usually stop at the coffee shop on the way out," Hall said.