Baltimore, once known as The City That Reads, gained a new bookstore last weekend when The Paper Herald opened on Saturday inside a former laundromat in Mount Vernon.
The city’s literary scene suffered a loss earlier this year when Kelmscott Bookshop vacated its longtime home at 34 West 25th Street – once part of a row known as Baltimore’s Book Block – and moved to Historic Savage Mill in Howard County.
Currently in transition is Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, which plans to move from Midtown to Waverly. Red Emma’s started a block from where The Paper Herald, a minority-owned business, had its grand opening. Also getting ready to open is Snug Books, which is replacing The Children’s Bookstore at 4717 Harford Road.
These changes follow other recent Baltimore bookstore developments, including new homes for The Ivy Bookshop (5928 Falls Road) and The Book Escape (925 S. Charles Street), and the opening last spring of the Baltimore location of Busboys and Poets at 3224 St. Paul Street.
Here is a roundup:
The Paper Herald
The building now occupied by The Paper Herald, at 702 St. Paul Street, previously housed the St. Paul Laundromat but had been vacant for about the past five years.
In recent weeks, the building’s windows have been papered over as a new tenant renovated the space. Last week the brown paper came down and the store opened with a fresh coat of paint; new planters on the sidewalk; balloons by the door and windows cleaner than they’ve been in years.
The Paper Herald features a mix of books, stationary, day planners, greeting cards, writing instruments, artwork and other gift items. One common theme is paper. The books include a mix of Baltimore- and Maryland-related topics, such as The Baltimore Rowhouse; Baltimore Then and Now, and Alison Robicelli’s 111 Places in Baltimore That You Must Not Miss.
The owner is Ashleigh Coaxum, a Black entrepreneur who’s originally from Washington, D. C. and previously worked in the real estate business there. Coaxum said her grandparents lived in Baltimore. When she was seeking a location for her store, she said, “I was looking for a space that was quaint and in a great neighborhood and walkable for customers.”
Coaxum said she intends to offer a “curated collection of books and gifts” geared to the people who live nearby – whether that’s books on wellness or Baltimore-themed note cards or sheet music for Peabody students.
“This area is filled with a lot of professionals, students, and long-time residents,” she said. “I wanted to provide an oasis of sorts, a place that they could come and relax and find resources that would help them through their daily life.”
The one-story structure has about 1,000 square feet of space and is essentially one big room, with large windows overlooking the street, bright lights and exposed beams in the ceiling. In place of washers and dryers, there are display tables on Oriental rugs.
The space feels more open than when it was a laundromat and yet the use isn’t all that different. Many people who washed clothes there would sit by the window and read books and newspapers or scroll through the messages on their cell phones while their clothes got dry, so it was something of a reading room even then.
It was a laundromat that reflected the economic mix and quirkiness of Baltimore’s population, too. Historian Charlie Duff tells the story of the late Rob Higgins, who bought a house several blocks north on St. Paul Street and used the laundromat when he and his wife Eva first moved to town. On his first visit, Duff said, Higgins opened the door to one of the dryers and found a naked man curled up inside. When Higgins asked the man what he was doing in there, the man said: “I only have one set of clothes, and they’re in the wash right now!”
The store is part of the same property as the apartment building at 28 E. Mount Vernon Place, one of the historic brownstones on the East Square of Mount Vernon Place. It essentially occupies the brownstone’s back yard.
For years the water that served the laundromat came off the line that served the apartments. In effect, the apartment tenants were partly paying to wash the clothes of the laundromat’s customers. Previous owners were unable to figure out a way to separate the two without spending a fortune on plumbing. Ultimately, the laundromat closed, even though it filled a need in the neighborhood and was always busy. The Paper Herald doesn’t pose that problem, yet it seemed as full of people over the weekend as the laundromat ever was.
Coaxum said she didn’t get any funding assistance from programs created to assist business start-ups, as several merchants have under the Downtown Partnership’s BOOST (Black-Owned and Occupied Storefront Tenancy) initiative.
The Paper Herald is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. Coaxum said she hopes to schedule book talks and other events starting in 2022. The store also has a website for online orders: paperherald.com.
“I plan to curate as I go along and see what the neighborhood really enjoys but welcome any suggestions that you have,” she told members of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association during a recent meeting “I’ll definitely have a suggestion box and would love to see everyone in the neighborhood.”
Next to open is Snug Books, the store that’s replacing The Children’s Bookstore on Harford Road, next to Zeke’s Coffee. The Children’s Bookstore closed in July due to health problems of its owner, not lack of business. Started in 1979, it was one of the oldest continuously-operating children’s bookstores in America.
Developer Samuel Polakoff, owner of the building that houses Snug Books, said in an email message that the new owner is Katie Beltz and the store will open “very soon.” A peek through the front door indicates it is nearly ready.
Beltz could not be reached, but the store has a Facebook page and a website: snugbooks.com. One post on Facebook shows some of the boxes of books that have been delivered for the soon-to-open store. “Perfect day for a delivery,” it says, “and to snuggle up with a good book!”
The flip side of the store openings is the departure in June of Kelmscott Bookshop on 25th Street. The block once contained four book shops: Royal Books; Johanson Rare Books and Tiber Books in addition to Kelmscott. The collection was so unusual that it was promoted to city residents and visitors alike.
“Book Block on 25th Street, four shops emerge as a little literary row,” read a headline above a 1992 article by Jacques Kelly in The Evening Sun.
“The Book Block, as it’s informally called, has emerged as Baltimore’s literary rialto,” Kelly observed. “The section of 25th between Charles Street and Maryland Avenue now has four thriving shops where customers spend long Saturday afternoons perusing volumes they may or may not buy.”
Tiber has since relocated to Cockeysville. Johanson, which was above Kelmscott, moved earlier this year and now operates out of the owners’ home. Royal is the only book shop left on the block.
Started in 1977, Kelmscott was named in honor of William Morris, considered the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, and his press, Kelmscott Press. The original owners were Teresa and Donald Johanson, who also own Johanson Rare Books. They sold Kelmscott in 2003 to Frances Durako, a Silver Spring resident, bibliophile and former chief information officer at a large Washington law firm.
According to its website, Kelmscott specializes in “fine and antiquarian books,” including books about books; artists’ books; private press; William Morris and the Kelmscott Press; Pre-Raphaelites and fine literature. It also has a wide selection of prints for sale and it buys fine books, from individual titles to small libraries.
Customers include the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, both of which have campuses less than a mile from the 25th Street location. At one point it had 30,000 books on site. After the move, it’s closer to 6,000.
Manager Susannah Horrom said Durako kept the shop on 25th Street when she bought it because that’s where it began and where its customers knew they could find it. “Because she was buying an existing business, she felt it was important to keep it there,” Horrom said. “And at the time, there was decent foot traffic.”
But over time, Horrom said, Kelmscott did a greater percentage of sales online and Durako realized the business didn’t need to be on 25th Street. At present, she said, more than 99 percent of its business is online. In addition, she said, the area wasn’t improving as quickly as some parts of Baltimore were.
Recently, she said, the area “was kind of getting a little nicer because Remington is really picking up and getting nicer and we were feeling a little bit of that. But that 25th Street block was just a little bit rough. And really there’s only one book store left.”
Horrom said Kelmscott shifted to an appointments-only model just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit because walk-in traffic was down.
“I think it was in January of 2020,” she said. “And then we hardly got any appointments. We had hardly any walk-ins for years, but the owner felt like she wanted to keep the storefront open because we had been there since 1977 and she was worried that we would lose customers. But then over the years the walks-ins just dropped off, dropped off, dropped off.”
On most days, “we had no people coming in at all,” she continued. “Some days we had five people but none of them would buy anything. Eventually it just got to the point where she felt like it wasn’t worth having two full-time employees so that the shop could have regular hours for the walk-ins that we weren’t getting, so we went to appointment only.”
One of the last straws was the COVID pandemic, which limited in-person visits altogether.
“Once COVID started no one even wanted an appointment,” Horrom said, “and we felt uncomfortable offering appointments so at that point all of our business really went online.”
Horrom said Kelmscott offered curbside pickup like restaurants did in the pandemic. But even then, she said, that wasn’t much help for customers who might live in Ellicott City or somewhere else outside Baltimore.
Horrom said the shop moved to Savage Mill because it’s between Baltimore and Washington, is closer to the owner’s residence, and gives Kelmscott the potential for online sales and in-person visits by appointment. She said the move began in mid-June and the owner sold the building on July 1.
The front of the 25th Street building has been repainted gray and white and has an awning that bears the name of a new occupant: Notre Maison. Kelmscott’s new shop is in Suite G7 of the Carding Building at Savage Mill, 8600 Foundry Street in Savage. Kelmscott’s website is Kelmscottbookshop.com.
“We felt bad about leaving but on the other hand, we tried,” Horrom said. “We had been there for years and people just stopped coming. You can’t just keep losing money forever.”
Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse
At the time, representatives of the worker-owned cooperative said one of the main reasons for the move is that Red Emma’s was able to buy the properties in Waverly, rather than rent. Since announcing the move, Red Emma’s has begun construction on what it calls a “multi-level community coffeehouse, bookstore and social center.”
According to cooperative member Kate Khatib, Red Emma’s will remain open at its Cathedral Street location through Christmas and then it will shift to “online orders and pop-ups only” for January and February. Khatib said Red Emma’s will be moving out of the Cathedral Street location in early January and owners are hoping to open the new location in March.