Baltimore has long since replaced its nickname from the 1980s, the City That Reads, but it still rings true for today’s independent booksellers.Old city benches bearing the motto are a reminder of a bookish childhood for Emma Snyder, owner of the bookstore and café Bird in Hand near Johns Hopkins University, who purchased the Ivy Bookshop in late 2018. She plans to place several benches on the grounds of the Ivy when it moves from Lake Falls Village, a mixed-use complex just north of the city, across the city line this spring.
“Baltimore has a deep sense of community, a distinctive sense of creativity, a commitment to curiosity and honesty and reflectiveness,” Snyder says. “All of those things are a perfect match for book culture.”
The new Ivy, which will be located in the former home of the Divine Life Church, will be three times the size of the original store. Snyder plans to hold workshops and add a coffee bar and a stage for events. “The ability to become a cultural center anchored by a thriving commercial bookstore seems extraordinary,” Snyder says.
Julia Fleischaker, a former Melville House director of marketing and publicity, was so drawn to Baltimore that she found a space for what became Greedy Reads bookstore in the Fells Point neighborhood before she even had a place to live. After opening the store in March 2018, she decided to open a second location in Remington, near a food hall and the Baltimore Museum of Art, last month so that she would have more space for events.
Unlike Fleischaker, Cullen Nawalkowsky stumbled into his role at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, a radical bookstore collective, 18 years ago. He was part of a group of activists who took over the struggling Black Planet Books and in 2004 converted it into Red Emma’s.
To get started, Nawalkowsky relied on support from Raven Books in Northampton, Mass., a store he admired and one of the few places willing to sell Red Emma’s books while the store recovered from the previous owner’s straitened finances. “For a year and a half I would drive up and down the East Coast with boxes of books, ” he says. In recent years the store has moved twice, expanding each time. Today, it is located in Mount Vernon, where it has become a nexus for activists. Nawalkowsky is proud of Red Emma’s place as one of the city’s literary hubs and is considering publishing zines and small books.
In North Baltimore, Atomic Books has carved out a space in the fiercely independent Hampden neighborhood, where locally owned businesses have strong community support. The store’s tagline, “Literary Finds for Mutated Minds,” reflects a selection of books that draws readers like writer-director-actor John Waters, who retrieves his fan mail when he comes in for books.
Co-owner Benn Ray is consistently creating new sections for readers and relishes rattling off their names: “Trumptastrophe, books about the Trump era; The God Problem, our atheist section; Mayhem, self-explanatory; and Bodily Functions, books about bodily functions. But I’m also pretty fond of our Outer Limits, Cryptozoology, Serial Killers, and Conspiracy Theories sections, too.”
In 2013, Atomic added a small neighborhood bar, Eightbar, to the store. “Baltimore has had a history of bookstore bars, and we feel like we are proudly carrying on in that tradition,” Ray says.
That lineage continues to motivate people to join the Baltimore bookselling scene. In October, musician-educators Daven Ralston and Joseph Carlson opened Charm City Books, a small neighborhood bookstore in Pigtown, in a rowhouse with books on the ground floor and space upstairs for music lessons and art classes.
Ralston says that, though the image of Baltimore as a rough city persists, spending time in places like Pigtown reveals more. “You have to step into this bubble to get to know it,” she notes. “There are a lot of families. The community and neighborhood are so supportive. Our street is full of small business owners. You wouldn’t know it until you actually set foot here, but it’s what you kind of dream about. This is the ideal of where I want to be.”