TAMPA — Raucous laughter rattled the artfully decorated tables filled with pastel colored pencils, cookies and the occasional wine glass as the small group convened on a Monday night.
Like the book clubs and sewing circles of the past, these lawyers and sales people and government workers found community in a shared interest: coloring books for adults.
"You think afterward that your time would have been better spent doing something else," said Caitlyn Kramer, 26, a Tampa cake decorator by day, coloring a picture of a fox at the Enchanted Spot. "But you're completely focused and relaxed while you're doing it."
Adult coloring books have ascended from the hobbyist niche to the tops of Amazon and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists in recent months, and the exploding trend has caught the attention of NPR, Parade Magazine and the New Yorker among others.
Perplexed writers are breathless about why grown-ups are reverting to an activity usually reserved for childhood.
"It gives people a chance to unplug, to unwind," said Ken Katzman, vice president of marketing for Dover Publications, which prints more than 150 adult coloring titles. "It's popular because of the day and age we live in, and the many electronic tethers we all have. Even kindergartners are getting iPads now."
Adult coloring is happening alone at home, in hospital rooms or in group settings like the bi-weekly socials Catherine "Kate" Kyres hosts at her South Tampa children's store and event space, Silly Dilly's and the Enchanted Spot.
Since Kyres started her socials a month ago, she has drawn an average of eight women out to color, eat sweets and chat. The $25 first time fee includes a copy to keep of one of two bestselling adult coloring books by Johanna Basford, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt & Coloring Book or Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Coloring Book.
"I think (Enchanted Forest) is whimsical with a sort of photo realism," said Kramer, who didn't even look up from her copy.
Returning group members bring their books and Kyres supplies the pencils, sweets and sense of community for $10 a gathering.
"It's basically to keep the lights on," Kyres said. "I'm a one-person show, so we're microscopic. If I can get people into color and relax, then that's a win."
Cathy Wos colors after longs days at Barbara S. Ponce Public Library in Pinellas Park, where she works as a librarian.
"It unblocks creativity," said Wos, 44, who used to work for the Tampa Bay Times. "You are creative and you can be creative without the pressure of perfectionism."
She heard online about another library trying to launch adult coloring events and thought it would be great fit for Ponce, where seven of the librarians color in their free time.
"There's a little bit of a nostalgia factor," Wos said. "People get really excited about it. Adults want to, but they feel like they need permission to do it. Sometimes they need permission to let loose and have fun."
Dover Publications has been around for 75 years and printing coloring books targeted at adults since the 1970s. Three years ago, amid a wave of popular European titles, the company launched Creative Haven and made the books more adult-friendly, Katzman said.
Detailed and intricate drawings are printed on premium paper on one side with a perforated edge, and the price remains less than $7. It makes each coloring project instantly frameable. Dover's Creative Haven has sold more than 3 million copies. The next big title, due in September, will commemorate the papal visit.
Big companies aren't the only ones cashing in on the craze. Small outfits such as Canada's Team Art are producing kitschy themed coloring books from Jon Hamm to The Evolution of Beyonce.
Pinellas-Pasco Assistant Public Defender Allison Hunter turned to creating a coloring book to deal with the stresses of her job.
"I was drawing octopuses to keep me sane from this job," said Hunter, 38. "As I was drawing, my daughter said I should make it into an adult coloring book. Then I heard the NPR story about it and figured, 'Why not?' "
She created a Kickstarter campaign to raise $200 for the printing and binding of 30 Octopus Days starring M.T. Octopus, a lawyer coping with the daily grind of courtroom life. She was 100 percent funded in three days, and then some.
"People are really interested in my story and coloring in general," Hunter explained. "I think it's a great creative outlet for people who don't know if they have the talent to do something else."
It's also therapeutic. Moffitt Cancer Center's Arts in Medicine program has been printing mandalas and offering them to patients and family members to color for more than 10 years.
"Circles are the universal symbol of wholeness, and it allows us to turn off the left brain analytical and turn on the right brain creativity," said Marcia Brown, a Moffitt artist-in residence.
Inside the hospital's studio, patients and caregivers can choose to color, paint or write to relieve the stress an illness places on the mind, said Cheryl Belanger, coordinator of the program.
People confined to their hospital rooms can request coloring supply delivery, but too often the limited supply of pencils would disappear.
"If they get left behind in a room, they will most likely be thrown out because the rooms need to be very clean," Belanger explained.
That's where the idea of the bedside art kit developed. With backing from GTE Financial, Moffitt's Arts in Medicine will distribute 250 bags with sets of 12 colored pencils, a pencil sharpener and a set of eight printed mandalas among other art supplies.
"It gives people a time to say, 'This is my time. I'm going to sit down and do my coloring,' " Belanger said. "Coloring is the easiest way to access the therapeutic arts."
The focus required for coloring soothes patients, she said, and also soothes them once they start to feel better.
Some people even keep it up after they've left the hospital.
Contact Robbyn Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @RMitchellTimes.