The subject for discussion was a book that traced the reform movement in Iran since the Islamic revolution two decades ago. And for more than an hour, the crowd at the Midnight Special Bookstore and Cultural Center listened patiently to author Daniel Brumberg.
Then, finally, the dam burst, and Brumberg faced a series of questions about what had been on everyone's mind: the current, perilous state of world affairs.
Brumberg told the crowd that while radical "quasi-fascist" Muslim groups with a hatred for the United States do not nearly pose the threat Hitler did in the 1930s, they also are more widespread than many Middle East experts like himself had realized.
"I don't think we know what we are dealing with," he said. "So we are in trouble. I think we are in for a long bit of trouble."
Shana Olson, a regular of the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade book store, peppered Brumberg with her own questions before later arguing with another audience member over the propriety of the U.S. bombing campaign. She said it was hardly the first time since Sept. 11 that author discussions had taken such a turn.
"There is a passion. People are really trying to get information on this stuff," said Olson, 40, a writer from Seal Beach. "I need to search out answers."
The region's independent bookstores long have been a place where book lovers, writers and others can find information not readily available via the mainstream media or the large chains. And since the terrorist attacks, they have certainly fulfilled that role.
The major independents around town, from Midnight Special to Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore to Skylight Books, report that their Middle Eastern and Islamic sections are being cleaned out. But they also are serving an expanded role: as a gathering place where patrons can exchange ideas, vent their emotions and, sometimes, just keep some company in what can be a frightening time.
"We have definitely seen people using the store as a place to be together and talk about things," said Midnight Special owner Margie Ghiz. "They are looking for a place not only to express themselves, but to find some alternatives to what is on TV."Attendance increases
At Book Soup, the West Hollywood book store that is known for drawing celebrity patrons, manager Allison Hill recalled that the day after the attacks the store went ahead with a book reading by a local author. Attendance was expected to be sparse, but 50 people showed up and the discussion focused on current events.
"I really sensed they felt the need to be around others," Hill said.
In the weeks since, books about handling loss are moving well, while spontaneous discussions about the attacks and ensuing events still break out in the store, she said.
Over at Dutton's on San Vicente Boulevard, owner Doug Dutton allowed a regular patron, writer and photographer Janet Sternburg, to put up a small display of photographs on the attacks. The photographs, which Sternburg took last month in New York with a throwaway camera, are blurry close ups of posters that family members of the missing had tacked up.
Pictured are the often-smiling faces of young and old, a couple, what appears to be a formal Marine shot, a graduation picture. Whatever family members could get their hands on and duplicate for what turned out to be, nearly without exception, a futile effort to find the missing.
"In an odd way, I found it an interesting and appropriate sort of response," said Dutton. "People will stand at it and talk all the time."
The installation, which was placed in a courtyard outside the store, includes a book where people can write in their comments. The 30-odd pages include a simple "thank you," heartfelt offerings of Christian pacifism, and disputes over whether U.S. foreign policy is a root cause of anger at the country in the Arab world.
"I am very sad that people died, but blame imperialism and expansion more than the terrorists," reads one comment.
Sternburg said she is grateful her photographs have stirred discussion. She wanted to show them at Duttons, rather than a commercial or fine arts space, because "it's the kind of place that feels like the old fashioned idea of the great book store caf & #233; in Paris," she said.Talking current affairs
Skylight on Vermont Avenue in the Los Feliz neighborhood is another one of the city's more prominent independent shops. But the store's literary focus mutes the political drama of the day, according to buyer Tim Morell.
Even so, a reading and discussion that author Bill Ayers held on his memoir, which focused on his days as a student radical in the 1960s, brought out an audience that wanted to talk about current affairs.
Ayers, whose book was published Sept. 10, said the response of the audience was similar to what he has seen elsewhere around the country during his tour of mostly independent bookstores.
"My book tour has pretty much turned into a conversation about world events," said Ayers. "People everywhere in America are hungry for conversations on what is going on and what it means to them. And most people, when they are in a quiet thoughtful place like a bookstore or museum, become a bit more reflective."
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