Well, here it is lunch hour, and we've had lunch, and it is too cold (hot, wet, windy, etc.) to do anything else, so let's go to the drugstore and read the magazines.
Magazine browsing is as American as the coffee break. It may even be guaranteed in the Constitution, for all I know. In Europe, if your merely look as if you might browse, a clerk looms up Right Now and asks was there something.
But that's Europe. You even have to buy your matches in Europe.
Browsing is part of the warp and woof of Washington.
At Schwartz's drug store a handwritten sign is tacked above the magazine rack: "Please do not take papers or magazines to tables." Schwartz's has a lunch counter and little tables where people come in and spend an hour over coffee and a paper.
"The only real problem is they get 'em mixed up on the racks," said Ted Holmes, who oversees the magazines. "You have to go over every now and then to straighten 'em. Personally, I have no objection. It's the national pastime. But sometimes I have to warn people not to take magzines to the tables. They spil coffee on 'em.
Once in a while, he said, a freeloader turns nasty, bellies up to the rack and won't let you straighten the magazines. Some people actually buy after reading, some drop the magazine into a shopping bag. But most just come in while waiting for the bus and loiter creatively.
"Oh, they read all kinds. They go after the nudie magazines. And we have some regulars who come in every week, pick up Time or Newsweek, read the sections they're interested in, and walk out. Saves a dollar."
Holmes, who used to run the news-stand at the Washington Hilton, said it's pretty much the same all over.
At Drug Fair a pharmacist, detailed to rearrange the shambles of a magazine rack after lunch hour, snapped: (1) yes, the browsers are at it all day, morning, noon and night, and (2) no, there's nothing you can do about it.
At the Book Annex, clerks, seemed hardly aware of a problem, pointed out that their rack is wedged into a corner and inconvenient to stand at.
Safeway clerks are bothered mostlyby reading in the checkout line, where a shopper, perhaps miffed at having to wait so long, can easily get through an entire People magazine, catch the major sensations in National Enquirer ("Margaret O'Brien Is an Old Woman!") and such the juice from the Reader's Digest.
At Cosmopolitan, which makes 96 percent of its sales on the newsstand, the problem is firmly told to go away.
"We cover things in depth," said Jerry Maystrik, director of sales promotion. "Most of our stories, the readers want to spend some time with them, really get into them. It's not like just picking up a recipe or something."
Besides, he added, most places in New York have "No Reading" signs now.
In the self-styled "adult" book stores, the approach is more direct. The really hot magazines are stapled shut or sealed in plastic, and browsers usually wind up flipping through the paperback books. Clerks in these places say they can tell from glancing at a customer which kind of book he will gravitate to, spanking or incest or whatever.
As a mater of fact, if you stand and watch long enough, you learn to spot several types of browser at any magazine rack:
The All-American - just happens to be strolling by, and his eye is caught by a headline with the Word in it. Sex. Girl. Drug. Orgy.
The Pseudo-All-American - acts exactly like the first, except his glance is roving over the rack while he is still 12 feet away.
The Leaner - alwasy likes the other guy's magazine better than his own.
The Fox - stands in front of the business mags but actually is leafing through Penthouse, from the other end of the rack.
The Oldest Inhabitant - was there when you arrived and is still there when you leave. Methodically plows through every publication this side of Hot Rod Digest. Never looks up.
When I lived in La Jolla, my friend Rick McGonigle and I would comb the beach for empty bottles every morning, and at a nickel for quarts and two cents for the others we'd by rich all afternoon. First stop was Putnam's Drugs, where we bought a Gilmore Special, a chocolate soda without ice creaM for a nickel, and sat at the marbled counter reading Batman comics.
At first we read only as long as it took to sip the drinks. Gradually, we built up a two-comic habit, then three. Finally we got so we were stripping six comics apiece off the rack and boldly bringing them tothe counter before we even ordered.
One day Mr. Putnam himself suddenly appeared behind us, between our stools.
"Can you boys read?" he said off-handedly.
We were insulted. What did he think, we were just looking at the pictures? Of course we could, we blustered.
A shaky index finger (shaking with rage. I later realized) speared between us and onto the cover of a comic book. It pointed to the little circle that said "10 cents."
"Can you read that?" he whispered thickly.
We slunk off our seats, faces aflame, and never came back. I haven't browsed tothis day.