Celebrate Normal’s Books and Records’ new facade on Dec. 17 — Baltimore Beat
From 2000-2010, a group of Baltimore writers met irregularly to play experimental and surrealist writing games, creating a fat stack of bizarre, funny, and surprising collaborative work.
Poet Megan McShea, who usually hosted the writing group, edited together the best pieces from the 10-year project, or as Rupert Wondolowski would have it, “jiggl[ed] the ink until gold nuggets rose to the surface.” The result is Ancient Party, a book collecting the work of 20 underground Baltimore artists, including the dearly departed Chris Toll and Blaster Al Ackerman.
To celebrate the release, McShea is throwing a party at the Windup Space this Sunday. There will be readings from the book and their “first bar-based writing group, if you fancy a taste.”
We’re sure you’ve all marked your calendars, but just a friendly reminder: tomorrow is the 204th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe. Not only did he give us a mascot for our professional football team, he also inspired that one Simpsons episode where Lisa’s rival builds a diorama based on “The Tell Tale Heart” and Lisa steals it, only to be haunted by the mechanical ticking of the diorama’s hideous heart. Surely this is what compelled the Poe Toaster to arrive at Poe’s grave in the wee hours of Poe’s birthday, every year for 75 years. The Toaster, a silent, hooded figure, would arrive at the grave, lay three red roses at the grave, pour him/herself a glass of cognac, toast, and leave the rest of the bottle at the grave site. Nothing more. The phenomenon ended a couple of years ago when the Toaster failed to make their usual appearance. Alas.
One of the things I love most about Baltimore is the fact that so many of its most interesting places are hidden from public view. Some of the city’s most charming venues, in fact, are the backrooms of stores, sometimes located up or down rear staircases. While most Baltimore residents know about the Owl Bar, hidden away behind the imposing front lobby of the Belvedere, other secret spaces are less well known.
A perfect example is An Die Musik, a classy little record store located at 409 Charles Street. Go to the rear of the shop, past racks of CDs and LPs, and you come to a flight of stairs; follow them up, and you’ll arrive at an intimate, comfortable concert space, home to a wide array of touring classical and jazz artists, as well as recitals by students from the nearby Peabody Institute. Minás Gallery on the Avenue in Hampden also hides a secret staircase. Go through the downstairs boutique that sells vintage clothing, accessories, jewelry and local crafts to a staircase at the back of the store, and emerge in a bright, pleasant gallery space also used for meetings, art shows, performances and belly dancing lessons.
Plenty of Baltimore bookshops hold readings, signings and other events. Not all of them have a backroom for the purpose. The coolest ones do. Atomic Books in Hampden stocks an inviting little bar hidden at the back of the store among the racks of LPs, a great venue for parties with an after-hours feel. Go through the mysterious red door in Normals Books and Records on East 31st Street, and you’ll come to the Red Room (now painted blue), a “laboratory for experimental cultural endeavors” which hosts sound performances, films screenings, lectures, and other eclectic goings-on.
Another odd and appealing space is hidden in the bowels of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Cathedral and Read, opposite Milk and Honey. Ignore the dusty pews and stained glass windows, go up a flight of stairs to the side, and you’ll find yourself in an unusual venue sometimes used for music and theater performances. But my favorite secret space has to be Charm City Yoga’s Midtown location, at 107 East Preston Street, above Twin Diamond Studios. Slip through the door on Hargrove Alley painted with the elephant god Ganesh and follow the smell of incense up two flights of wooden stairs, and you’ll find two calm, well-lit yoga rooms where you can focus on inner peace. Namaste!
For those hoisting metaphorical “End Is Nigh” signs near their local indie bookstores, 2011’s been positively Revelations-worthy: In Baltimore alone, local clearinghouse Daedelus Books dropped its Belvedere Square location after five years and Borders, the long-suffering and debt-ridden Pepsi to Barnes & Noble’s dominating Coke, liquidated; its Timonium location will close by the end of September. Factor in the ebook market, rife with shiny Amazon Kindles and smartphones, and it’s all enough to drive a small bookseller into full-blown panic.
Or, at the very least, to defensive irony.
“The commercials for the Kindle crack me up,” says Normal’s Books and Records owner Rupert Wondolowski, who opened the store with a crowd of artist and writer friends in 1990. Faced with the threat of technology, he did what any artist-by-night might do: He leaned on satire, pasting “anti-Kindle” propaganda around the store and having a themed sale every Friday. “‘No glare! It’s so light!’ A used book’s not putting up much of a glare. And how many weaklings can’t pick up a paperback?”
Of course, among local indies the Kindle features more as a scapegoat–used books are still “way cheaper than the Kindle versions,” Wondolowski points out, and The Baltimore Sun’s Jay Hancock documented booksellers’ sheepish backpedaling from the Kindle-borne e-book scare just last week. “Even back in 1982, when I started in used books, people were saying the computer was going to screw us,” Wondolowski says. More pressing? “There’s also the complete collapse of the global economy. It’s not so bad yet. You’ll know things are rough when we’re having a 50 percent sale.”
Still, all that tech upheaval provides a tidy symbol for the hostile environment facing bookstores of late. While some locals–The Ivy Bookshop and Hunt Valley’s Greetings & Readings both spring to mind–are managing to thrive via niche followings, peoples’ reading habits are slowly changing and, clever sales aside, much of the local market has taken some drastic measures to stay in the black. On Normal’s 21st birthday, for example, the store received an uneasy gift of charity: a benefit concert at the Golden West restaurant via a number of its musician regulars. (“It was a nice cash infusion for the slow summer months,” Wondolowski admits.) And Ukazoo Books, a new and used store in Towson, took the 50 percent sale concept as a challenge, loss-leading its way to the bank this June by selling books as low as $1.49 a pop. But manager Edward Whitfill, who came up with the idea, spins these counterintuitive sales events as a sort of business Darwinism.
“People bought books to give away,” he says of his sale. “At this point, we’re an instant gratification society. Will there be room for everybody? No. But [Borders’ closing] is probably doing a correction in the size of the market. They had a lot of debt. You can blame new technology, but when you’re servicing debt, you can’t explore new stuff.”
Ukazoo, which opened a storefront in 2007 when its owners’ online bookselling service became too big to be legal, has reason to look at marketing innovation as adaptability. But other locals are more circumspect. In Hancock’s Sun article, Atomic Books co-owner Benn Ray notes that Borders’ closing is “in nobody’s interest,” citing “repercussions” that may include publishers printing even smaller runs of their quirkier, more under the radar work–for many indie bookstores, the lifeblood of the business. And Michael Cantor, who founded Salamander Books in the late 1990s and relocated the shop from Hampden to Mount Vernon last year, goes even further, suggesting his livelihood is up against a more permanent change in the culture.
“Books aren’t the go-to for the lay public anymore,” he says. “ You used to get on the train and there would be a book in 75 percent of the peoples’ hands. Now they have laptops. It connects their brains in a similar way, but there’s nothing residual afterwards. You can always press the button or flip the switch. That’s very attractive.”
Cantor hesitates to dismiss the web out of hand, though. “Something like Borders’ closing was about the economy,” he says. “How much does it cost to air-condition a place like that?” By comparison, he points to the small used business’s many options, including online marketplaces like Amazon.com and ABE Books. Both have become secret weapons for Salamander and its cohort–places where they can defray dry spells and peddle their wares. But when asked about long-term survival, he still leans towards community presence.
“At this point, I see the book business not necessarily making the money I need to get by,” Cantor says. “But it’s not worth ditching it. People want to go to places where they have a connection with the people running them. Those who think and create are always in search of other individuals.”
It’s a position shared by Wondolowski.
“These are definitely frightening times,” he says. “But lately I’ve been having a lot of nice, emotional conversations with people who love bookstores. They may die out for a while, but then where do you go when you’re not on your computer? The pendulum will swing back.”