In Search of the Water Cooler

Barnes & Noble

By Janean Chun

Once upon a time, bookstores were places where bookworms (like me) would guiltily browse through books and magazines, pretending not to see the "NO LOITERING" and "THIS IS NOT A LIBRARY" signs, squeezing through narrow aisles, never daring to make eye contact with the other notoriously introverted bookworms. Imagine the revelation of my first Barnes & Noble experience: entering the double doors, walking by racks holding every magazine imaginable, heading up the escalator to what seemed to be heaven itself--the smell of new books, the comforting whir of blenders and cappuccino makers, the siren call of plush chairs, fellow bibliophiles reading intently or conversing casually with stacks of books piled on the tables before them. Talk about happily ever after.

I've had a Barnes & Noble fetish ever since. And apparently, I'm not alone. Many homebased business owners share my joy--they, too, have discovered Barnes & Noble to be the ideal place to learn or lounge, mingle or isolate, work or play.

On this day, four homebased business owners have agreed to meet and chat about their love of Barnes & Noble at, appropriately, a Barnes & Noble store. Alan Rothman, a Laguna Niguel, California, attorney and author, uses the bookstore for monthly brainstorming sessions with Claire Jackman, president of Bonsall, California-based Network Marketing Speakers Bureau. They once spent a grand total of three hours in a Barnes & Noble store. "We met, had lunch in the [Barnes & Noble] cafe, then talked for another hour," says Jackman. "I believe we even checked out what they had on the dinner menu."

Rob Baker, a former policeman who now runs Executive Matchmakers Online, a Newport Beach, California-based Internet dating service, often hangs out in the computer section, where he takes the opportunity to ask fellow browsers whether they're on the Internet, single and interested in dating.

Tom Justin, a Newport Beach, California, motivational author and lecturer, often uses his local Barnes & Noble as a place to meet associates, as well as browse the self-help and new release sections. He is the sole person in the group who admits to having fallen asleep reading in one of the store's chairs: the sign of a true Barnes & Noble aficionado. "This is a very comfortable environment," says Justin. "Maybe it's the high ceilings--you never feel repressed. And no one ever rushes you."

Ambiance is indeed key to Barnes & Noble's appeal. The mood is trendy yet thoughtful--category killer meets college library. "It's like an upscale coffeehouse but without all the noise and confusion," says Jackman. And with the mahogany bookcases and soft classical music as a backdrop, the scene is always elegant, Jackman adds. "I feel very confident meeting clients here."

"Our corporate office designed the superstores with the stuffed furniture, coffee tables and cafes to make them comforting, inviting places for people to study, meet others and socialize," says Terrie Kelly, merchandise manager at the Barnes & Noble in Irvine, California. "They wanted people to feel as if they were at home."

And it's working. "We often see people with their laptop computers plugged into one of our outlets, accessing the Internet or typing reports right here in the store," Kelly says.

All these homebased business owners consider Barnes & Noble's selection of 150,000 titles great for research. "When you step into Barnes & Noble, you get a feel for what's hot from the celebrities on the magazine covers and the topics of the new releases," says Rothman. "And you know what's not hot by looking at the books in the discounted section."

"Information is key to all our businesses," says Jackman. "Here, we're surrounded by information."

Not to mention the opportunities to meet people. Barnes & Noble offers seminars each month, which Rothman sees as prime time to mingle. "I've met a lot of new friends and potential business clients that way," he says. "Barnes & Noble has gone out of its way to make this bookstore user-friendly. They've really built a community spirit."

Baker admits he once ran into a couple arguing, and ended up enlisting them in his dating service. When asked if he habitually eavesdrops in the aisles, Baker smiles mischievously. "It's not too difficult to overhear conversations," he says.

Not that people mind. In fact, the channels of communication seem fairly open either way. "People are in an inquisitive, information-seeking mode," says Jackman. "They're more into networking than they would be if they were in a grocery store."

In perhaps the most impressive Barnes & Noble tale of the day, Justin recalls the time someone who had attended one of his seminars recognized him. "He ended up becoming a client of mine," says Justin. "That was the most money I got out of a bookstore--I was just standing there looking at a book and ended up getting a job."

Dr. Gilda Carle, (914) 378-1233, http://www.drgilda.com

Executive Matchmakers Online, (888) 573-7460, http://www.execmatch.com

Firebaugh Communications, (214) 522-4487, http://www.firepub.com

Tom Justin, (714) 753-2777, cprmind@aol.com

Network Marketing Speakers Bureau, (760) 758-4699, nmsb@znet.com

Alan Rothman, (714) 362-9233, arothman@fea.net

Susan French & Associates, (512) 306-1023, fax: (512) 306-1024

Andrzej Wojnar, (773) 889-0003, fax: (773) 889-0004

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