The rise of the indie bookstore in Baltimore

By NEHAL AGGARWAL | October 27, 2016

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EARL/CC-BY-NC2.0 Atomic Books is an independent bookstore located in Hampden.

Baltimore is a haven for readers looking to discover bookstores apart from fiendish chain stores. Let’s start in Station North, currently one of the hubs of Baltimore’s art scene, as the neighborhood holds MICA, the Copy Cat Building, and the only alley in Baltimore where graffiti is legal.

Red Emma’s is a self-pronounced radical bookstore in Station North. They keep their prices low enough that anyone can buy their food and drink and, consequently, the crowd that frequents the establishment is very diverse. The bookstore looks like a renovated warehouse, and the space is divided in two: a café and a bookstore.

The bar is centrally located, and most of the baristas are interesting conversationalists. Red Emma’s is open to all, giving aspiring writers in the café plenty of people-watching activity for inspiration. The store’s range of literature stretches from the niche to the bestselling.

Red Emma’s also hosts events every week that discuss not only social justice and change in Baltimore, but also showcase the work of local artists.

“The intention of Red Emma’s has always been to make a space for people to come together, organize and learn from each other and learn something about radicalization and revolutions,” K. Froome, a two-year staff member sporting a buzz cut and tiger tattoo, said.

Every neighborhood that makes up the city of Baltimore has multiple bookstores that hold an individual personality. Hampden is no exception.

Atomic Bookstore in Hampden is tucked into a small street that’s jam-packed with thrift stores. The store makes up for its relatively small size with its robust personality. The bookstore staff makes hilarious off-color jokes, and if you ever strike up a conversation don’t be surprised by how many you hear.

Benn Ray, who has owned Atomic Books for the past 15 years, described the store’s mission as appealing to the “DIY community in Baltimore.”

He stated that the store carries magazines, graphic novels and comics because they place emphasis on carrying self-published and independent writers. This explains why some of the books they carry might be so expensive. However, there is also a cart at the front of the store that has books on sale for $3 or less.

Another cool aspect of the bookstore is the bar in the back. Eightbar is used as the setting for many book, comic and art club meetings, in addition to readings that the store occasionally hosts.

A few miles north, Ivy Bookshop is a stark contrast from Atomic Books. Set in the swanky Mt. Washington neighborhood, Ivy Bookshop is classy and sassy. It has elegant wooden shelves piled high with books.

You wouldn’t consider the bookstore sassy until you had attend one of the readings held here. The authors who read at The Ivy are engaging, funny and proud to voice their opinions.

Additionally, Ivy Bookshop provides a space to meet for over eighty book clubs in Baltimore. They also hold events, such as readings of work by local authors and professors. The Ivy Bookshop keeps prices low because they recognize that not everyone wants to pay over $20 for a hardcover. They work in conjunction with Enoch Pratt Library to give all Baltimoreans access to affordable and varied books.

Perhaps the clearest manifestation of Baltimore’s love of literature is The Book Thing, which tragically burned down last year. While it was still standing, The Book Thing was an abandoned warehouse that was turned into a place for readers to exchange books for free.

Through this exchange people from all over Baltimore could read books on a wider variety of topics. Think of it like a citywide library that operates on an entirely pro bono basis. After the devastating news of the fire spread, the city’s inhabitants immediately started funding efforts to bring back The Book Thing.

Bookstores in Baltimore aren’t just stores, they’re a community of writers, readers and literary artists. You too could meet these eclectic bibliophiles if you step into the world of independent bookstore.

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