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A cool reception for beach reading

Tramping along Redington Shores Beach, I came upon a lively retired couple.

Allan Folger was looking at whatever a man looks at when the sun climbs high, the bikinis ride low, and he thinks he's hiding behind dark glasses.

His wife Lois had a paperback novel in her lap. "You don't want to know what I'm reading," she said, laughing.

It was Apache Runaway by Madeline Baker. If a book can be judged by its cover, Runaway's Native American hero was a male model hunk, all pecs, flowing hair with an overriding interest in a not necessarily Native American blonde.

"I'm very interested in Indian crafts and museums," Mrs. Folger said, meaning it, but still amused. "And he," she gestured to her husband, "has got his dark glasses and I don't know where he's looking."

He smiled fondly at her. "She reads and I look. We do fine."

There used to be a category of books called "beach reading." No more. A tour of a few mid-county beaches this week turned up nothing but bad news for those who like lean, well-crafted books.

The beachgoers weren't reading; they were barely talking to one another. These people weren't even listening to music. It was all they could do to vegetate.

Clearwater Beach never looked better. Bright sun, clean water, little bit of a breeze, plenty of people but not too many.

I tramped past about 75 clusters of people and found four where reading was going on. Three of those four had thrillers by John Grisham.

"I like his early ones better _ they were more literary," said Susan Irby of Dallas. She was chaperoning a female volleyball team.

"Fourteen- and 15-year-old girls," she said. "They're not ogling books. They're ogling boys."

One of her charges sauntered over. "Reading?" said Tiffany White, 14. "I don't do it." She glanced tentatively at the chaperone. "Well, maybe a romance novel now and then, or a mystery."

No readers in sight on Indian Rocks Beach, but briefly, things seemed to be looking up in the Redingtons. A young woman named R.J. Meyer was lying on her stomach reading a formidable tome called The American Past.

Turned out it was an assigned textbook for a class Meyer takes at Hillsborough Community College. I didn't think homework should count as beach reading. She didn't care.

By then I was getting so desperate I started to ask people what they weren't reading and why.

A pleasant-looking, middle-age gent named Andres Vereara gave the most unexpected answer. He is a U.S. Army master sergeant in Special Forces, come to the area to prepare for a parachute jumping exhibition on July 4th.

"Once in a while I bring a book to work on at the beach," he said. "One of my military books."

These books, he explained, were the ones in which he wrote the duties and assignments of the privates, corporals and sergeants under his command.

Last stop was Book Bank USA, a mostly second-hand bookstore in the Largo Mall. "Beach customers look for something cheap in the Bargain Room, so it won't matter if it gets wet or food spilled on it," said manager Linda Manter.

She told of a humorist, a man who said he wanted "a nice big book, about a yard long, so I can use it as a table at the beach."

Manter came up with one of the store's specials: The Butterfly Wall Chart Book; three-and-a-half feet long; $6.99.

"That surprised him," she says. "But he didn't buy the book."