Atomic Books: The Center of Everything

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Whenever friends of mine come to Baltimore, they invariably demand that I take them to “that shop,” and they always mean the same place: Atomic Books, in Hampden. Now, Baltimore definitely has some great independent bookshops, notably Normal’s and Red Emma’s, which both have their own unique advantages, but Atomic Books is truly the center of everything. Okay, so you can’t hang out there with your laptop and a cup of coffee like you can at Red Emma’s or Read Street Books, but then, Atomic isn’t quite that kind of place (and there are lots of fabulous coffee shops right next door on The Avenue).

The store itself was founded on a different site in 1992, but closed in 2000 in anticipation of the Millennium bug. The new Atomic Books was opened on the Avenue in Hampden in 2001, and moved round the corner in 2008 to its current larger, brighter location in at 3620 Falls Road. It’s a small operation, which means the owners, Benn Ray and Rachel Whang, are the shop’s only full-time employees, although there are also a couple of dedicated part-timers.

Renaissance man Benn Ray is the author of his own comic Straight Talk Express, and draws the “Said What?” comic published every Wednesday in B: The Paper. A sometime teacher, City Paper writer and expert on graphic novels, he also publishes his own blog, Mobtown Shank, and is currently head of the Hampden Village Merchants Association.

Selling stuff isn’t all that goes on at Atomic Books. Ray and Whang also host a music club that meets twice a month to discuss new releases, as well as a thriving monthly book club. They also publish a blog, host readings, art shows, signings, book launches, parties and lectures, and even take fan mail for John Waters, whose recent signing (of his pithy new book, Role Models) was heralded by a line of fans reaching all the way round the block.

While everyone complains about Amazon and chain stores putting independent booksellers out of business, Ray and Whang, without any fuss or fanfare, continue to stock and sell all the latest books from independent publishers, plus fanzines, small press journals, underground magazines, LPs, lunchboxes, plush toys, posters, art toys, and a whole lot more besides. When you live near a shop like Atomic Books, why bother with Amazon?

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  1. Amen x infinity. You know, Benn and Rachel are also really generous; they’ve loaned their name to a local charity cycling team, Team Atomic, that raises money for Moveable Feast (, and have hosted many benefits for Moveable Feast.

    But the thing I always say sets Atomic Books apart not only from any other bookstore but from almost any other store of any kind is that they’ve created a sense of community. They not only invite people in to their world through their curated collection and in-store events, but they extend out into the world both through formal channels like the Shank or participation in the merchant’s association, and through informal channels, like the presidential election year when Benn went looking for a bar on the Avenue with cable TV so people could gather to watch results on Comedy Central. In the process, he got one restaurant to open early for breakfast for the benefit of early voters and encouraged a bunch of merchants to offer discounts to people with “I Voted” stickers. The drudgery of waiting in line to vote was washed away by the promise of a chance to chat with friends before work over a bloody mary.

    Benn and Rachel are just really engaged with and active within their community like woefully few others, all while being remarkably humble about it. In so many ways, Atomic Books is The Only Store That Matters.

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