A Literary Long Weekend in Baltimore
Poe, Mencken, Red Emma's... Welcome to Charm City
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As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community.
—Bunk, The Wire
Baltimore has never been a premiere tourist destination. We’ve spent years (more fervently so, since the riots in April) insisting to outsiders that we’re not just the city that brought you The Wire or the clothes you work out in (thanks, Under Armor). We have a rich literary history; in fact, Baltimore’s old motto “The City That Reads” may as well have been “The City That Writes”—Frederick Douglass, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zora Neale Hurston, H.L. Mencken, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Dos Passos, Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, John Barth, Madison Smartt Bell, Stephen Dixon, Laura Lippman, Alice McDermott, and Anne Tyler all have lived and/or written in Baltimore.
People not only write in Baltimore, they come to write: Baltimore is the home of several MFA programs (including the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University), and novelists Madison Smartt Bell and Alice McDermott, among others, still teach lucky students. People also come to do research—the Central Branch of The Enoch Pratt Free Library (about an hour’s drive north of the National Archives in Washington, DC) includes the H.L. Mencken room (an archive of the author’s books, letters, and other interesting items) and thousands of historically important documents and rare books in their special collections.
Baltimore, just south of the Mason-Dixon line, harbors a bit of Southern hospitality while feeling like an east coast city; don’t be surprised if people call you “hon” and ask you how you’re doing. And don’t be shocked if they tell you how they’re doing, in exquisite detail.
Drive over to the neighborhood of Woodberry and have a late breakfast at Artifact Coffee. (Disclaimer: Artifact Coffee is where I host a monthly, Monday-night fiction-reading series called Starts Here!, sponsored by the Ivy Bookshop.) Housed in a reclaimed stone factory, with high ceilings and exposed beams (and lots of vinyl, which they sometimes play on a record player in the corner of the store), Artifact is located in the region of Baltimore’s old textile mills.
Take a quick drive or long walk southeast down to Hampden and visit Atomic Books. Owners Benn Ray and Rachel Whang rescued this place in the 1990s, and it’s become a national source of comics, vinyl, books, and collectibles without the nerdy comic store feel. They even have a bar! Jami Attenberg has been down to read recently (they have fiction and poetry reading series, along with special events), and John Waters picks up his fan mail here. While you’re here, you might want to walk a block south and do a loop of historic West 36th Street. It’s bustling with antique stores, trendy restaurants and wine bars. There’s also a heavenly ice cream parlor, The Charmey, at the east end of 36th.
Drive down to the neighborhood of Mount Vernon, which is city (and literary) central. If you’re an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, there are a few locations you might want to stroll by. Fitzgerald lived with his wife Zelda (who spent weekdays hospitalized for schizophrenia at a hospital in Towson, north of the city) in a house on 1307 Park Avenue. It’s not open to the public, but there is a blue plaque of historical designation out front). Friend and fellow writer, “The Sage of Baltimore,” H. L. Mencken (founder of The American Mercury magazine, writer for The Baltimore Sun and Smart Set, and author of The American Language) lived briefly nearby at the time on 704 Cathedral Street with his wife, writer Sara Haardt, and is reported to have written in his journal that because of Fitzgerald’s increasing alcoholism he “has become a nuisance.”
After Tender Is the Night was released to poor reviews, Fitzgerald lived at the Cambridge Arms Apartments near Johns Hopkins University for a little while (where he wrote the disastrous essay, “The Crack Up” for Esquire) before moving back downtown to The Stafford Hotel on 716 North Washington Place (and from there to Hollywood). The Stafford Hotel now serves as apartments for students at the nearby Peabody Conservatory, the music arm of Johns Hopkins University, and rests across from Mount Vernon Place, a square park in the middle of downtown Charles Street (traffic flows around). In the center is the famous Washington Monument, a tall, white marble, colossal column, the first monument in honor of George Washington. Visitors can climb the 227 steps inside the monument for a view of the city, and there’s also an exhibit gallery on the ground floor.
On the southeast side of Mount Vernon Place, pop into Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and Asbury House. The Victorian Gothic church is built from amphibolite, a metamorphic rock that is dark, mossy green, and rests atop what was once the home of Elizabeth Phoebe Key, the daughter of Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and who died there. Like Fitzgerald’s former townhome on 1307 Park Avenue, there is a nifty plaque of documentation at the church. If you have time, stroll back to Cathedral Street, to the Emmanuel Episcopal Church; Edna St. Vincent Millay used to read her work there.
If you want a lesson in world art history, visit the Walters Art Museum. Two blocks south of Mount Vernon Place, the Walters houses 30,000 works of art comprising pre-dynastic Egypt to 20th-century Europe, Ancient Egyptian treasures, arms and armor, and 19th-century European. Check out their special events as well—the museum has hosted indie music favorites Dan Deacon and Wye Oak in the past.
Head up Charles Street by car, bus, or cab to Station North. Browse at Red Emma’s, the self-titled “radical” restaurant, coffee, bookstore, and community cooperative on North Avenue, and then head down the street to some amazing pizza at Joe Squared. Stay for the live music or DJ or head back across the street to The WindUp Space, a dark, black-painted bar and performance space that features music, variety shows, great art, and the Night of 100 Hunter S. Thompsons.
Pop in for a late breakfast or lunch at The Paper Moon Diner. The Paper Moon is the embodiment of Baltimore—funky and welcoming and tasty. The diner, which is a mainstay for students at the nearby Hopkins campus, houses two dining rooms and an old-school diner counter, and is a repository of toys from action heroes to baby dolls—glued to every wall. Check out the shrine of Pez dispensers in the foyer as you come in.
Head over to Normals Bookstore in Charles Village. Normals is a collective and a Baltimore institution of 24 years. Part record store, part used book store, Normals buys and sells, in their words, “Eastern and Western Philosophy, Artist’s Monographs, Greek & Roman Classics, Hardboiled Fiction, Metaphysics and interesting and/or contemporary fiction” in addition to “sweet, sweet vinyl.” Zines have a prominent home here.
Walk one street over to the Book Thing, the greatest book-sharing experiment in America. Leave books, take books. As many as you want—seriously. The Book Thing is only open on the weekends and often it’s a zoo (and its lack of heating and air-conditioning can exacerbate the situation). But, if you are missing one issue from your comprehensive, pre-Rupert Murdoch-owned National Geographic collection, the Book Thing just might have it. Need a copy of the stories of John Cheever? Check. How about old copies of Granta and Best American Short Stories. Got it. Don’t be confused if you encounter what looks like a large auto garage; you’re in the right place!
Drive or walk over to Johns Hopkins University, America’s first research university, in the heart of Charles Village. Sun on the campus green, which students call “The Beach,” or grab a cup of Joe at One World Café, across the street on University Parkway. Hopkins includes among its graduates the writers John Barth and P.J. O’Rourke, film director Wes Craven, and journalist Wolf Blitzer. Breathe the air deeply here; Hopkins also boasts 36 Nobel Laureates past and present; their essence of genius might be catching. Check out the Hopkins website for lectures, classical or rock concerts at Shriver Hall, and other cultural events during the time of your visit. Before you leave, check out Wolman Hall, on the west side of campus.
Abutting Johns Hopkins University on the south end of campus, The Baltimore Museum of Art, which opened its doors in 1914, houses 95,000 objects of art, but its real jewel is the Cone Collection, the largest collection of the works of Henri Matisse in the world, courtesy of Baltimoreans Claribel and Etta Cone. The Cone sisters (who were friends of Gertrude and Leo Stein) spent a lot of time in Paris studios rubbing elbows with Henri Matisse (who called them “my two Baltimore ladies”) and Pablo Picasso.
Head down to Station North, Baltimore’s new thriving arts neighborhood, and visit Pen & Quill on Charles Street for dinner. The Pen & Quill features an upscale, fresh menu and plenty of cocktails. This little corridor of Charles Street also houses The Lost City Diner for eats, which in addition to amazing 1950s sci-fi design, has old-school racks of comic books so you can read an issue of Spiderman or Conan the Barbarian while you wait for your meatloaf and mashed potatoes and milkshake. Afterwards, check out a movie at The Charles Theater, one of Baltimore’s oldest art house theaters and place to see new independent releases, revival films, anime, and Met Opera. Or, have a nightcap at Club Charles, whose 1940s deco says it all. Read up on The Club Charles’s ghost on their web site before you go, if you’re a ghost hunter (or easily spooked).
Even though it looks like you’re in the suburbs, you’re still in the city when you visit historic Belvedere Square Market to have brunch at Attwater’s. Attwater’s is a local chain but a damn good one; their servings are hearty, and I recommend the French toast.
If you haven’t gotten enough books from The Book Thing, Atomic, and Emma’s stop by one of Baltimore’s premiere independent bookstores, The Ivy Bookshop. Nestled in a quiet shopping center on Falls Road north of Hampden and Woodberry, the Ivy offers a smart selection of new releases, a burgeoning children and YA section (with staff knowledgeable in each category), and a large collection of stationery and tasteful souvenirs for Mom and the bibliophile in your life. Most importantly, the Ivy is event central for books—in addition to having more than 80 book clubs registered to the store, the Ivy hosts readings of local and national authors almost every day of the week.
Drive back to Mount Vernon to visit Baltimore’s most impressive library, the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street. It takes up an entire city block, and, as mentioned previously, is great for genealogy research or for perusing unusual and rare documents pertaining to Maryland.
A short walk up the street, west of the Walters, is the Maryland Historical Society, which houses more than 350,00 objects, including paintings, furniture, quilts, and Civil War uniforms, and seven million documents and books. Researching your book based in Maryland? The Historical Society would be a good place to start.
You can’t end a trip in Baltimore without experiencing the harbor. Aside from the Baltimore Book Festival (and the massive Barnes & Noble), literary places of interest at the Inner Harbor are few, but there’s Harborplace (twin pavilions of stores that bracket the Inner Harbor), the U.S.S. Constellation a dinner boat and sight-seeing tours, and a water taxi system, which in addition to stopping at Fort McHenry (where Francis Scott Key wrote the aforementioned anthem), goes to cool neighborhoods by the water—Federal Hill (and its amazing American Visionary Arts Museum), Canton, and Fells Point (where Poe is rumored to have died, outside the bar The Horse You Road In On).
Chances are if you’ve followed this travel itinerary, your weekend was pretty full, but here are a few additional literary wildcards to fill up any holes in your weekend: The H.L. Mencken House, The Poe House, and The Westminster Cemetery and Catacombs. The Mencken and Poe Houses are in parts of West Baltimore City that don’t experience much tourist foot traffic. The Mencken House, in the Hollins Market area, is currently closed to the public (with ongoing efforts to reopen it) but the Poe House, which has had a similarly tumultuous history the past few years, is open, for now, every weekend through December, 2015. Finally, the Westminster Cemetery and Catacombs, the burial site of Edgar Allen Poe, is located at 519 West Fayette Street, is near the University of Maryland Hospital and sports stadiums for the Orioles and Ravens. The church was constructed on brick piers above the tombs to avoid disturbing them, and visitors can take tours of these catacombs.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay in Charm City! You’re no longer a tourist, but a friend. And, if you make a return trip, we’ll definitely consider you family, hon.