Festivals aren’t the only places to see national writers read in Baltimore. In 2008, Michael Kimball and I started the aforementioned 510 Readings, the only fiction reading series in Baltimore. Every third Saturday at Minás Gallery in Hampden we host local, regional, and national writers—more than three hundred so far, from as far as Toronto and South Africa to right down the street. Hampden is the quintessential DIY, local-food-movement, hipster neighborhood, anchored by a long, historic shopping avenue on 36th Street full of great vintage clothing and art galleries, grocery markets-turned innovative dining establishments like the Hampden Food Market and Corner BYOB (an old diner whose specials now offer squirrel and roast pig) to bookstores like the nationally renowned Atomic Books, where owners Benn Ray and Rachel Whang sell comics, underground books, and fanzines; run a reading series hosted by Benn Ray and writer and Goucher professor Kathy Flann; and serve as a fan-mail depot for Baltimore icon John Waters. Hampden is a short bike ride away from Johns Hopkins University, where many writers have attended the highly regarded MFA seminars and MA writing programs, and the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has hosted Opium Magazine’s quirky Literary Death Match.
Keep heading east on your bicycle through Charles Village to Waverly and you’ll find the greatest book-sharing experiment in America, The Book Thing. Housed in a garage behind Normals Books (Rupert Wondolowski’s funky used-book and music store and performance space), the Book Thing, like the writers happy hour, started as an idea in a bar. Russell Wattenberg was a bartender who couldn’t pass up the classics at yard sales, and the teachers who drank at his bar needed books for their students. An unlikely alliance was born, and people began bringing their unwanted books to the bar for Wattenberg to distribute. Suddenly he was donating palettes of books to prisons and even operating a free bookstore out of a basement in Mount Vernon before acquiring the current space in Waverly. The concept of the Book Thing is simple: give books, take books. In fact, you don’t have to give to take: Come and take all of the books if you want, just stamp each book with the Book Thing stamp so that it cannot be resold. Even though the new 7,000-square-foot space has no heat or air conditioning, hundreds of Baltimoreans rummage through the shelves and cardboard boxes arranged by topic, looking for a rare find or just an unusual read. Why our motto was changed from “The City That Reads” to “The Greatest City in America,” I’ll never know. Maybe, with the Book Thing’s help, we can petition to have it changed back.
We’re heading south now. Known for years as a truck route from downtown to Interstate 95, North Avenue is no longer a congested, four-lane street separating the green, residential corridors of Charles Village/Waverly and Bolton Hill from downtown Baltimore. Joe Squared Pizza, on the west end of North Avenue, is popular with writing faculty and students from the University of Baltimore (UB) and Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA). It’s also the perfect place to meet up before heading to readings at the Windup Space (home to the New Mercury Reading Series, Baltimore’s only nonfiction series, founded by Deborah Rudacille and John Barry and named after Mencken's magazine The American Mercury) and Cyclops Books. (The pizza at Joe Squared is so good it’s no longer the hipster’s best-kept secret; a second location has opened in the tourist-heavy Inner Harbor.) A few doors down from The Windup Space, Liam Flynn’s Alehouse hosts Submit 10, a different type of open-mike night where writers submit stories of ten minutes or less, and other writers read them.
Head further south into the city and you’ll reach UB, whose beautiful buildings line much of Mount Royal and Maryland Avenues. Within the past few years, the university’s MFA reading series has hosted Teju Cole and Amy Hempel; the fifth-floor Hilda and Michael Bogomolny Room hosts a panoramic view of Baltimore that is unparalleled. Students in the undergraduate program at UB got into the act last year and began their own magazine, Artichoke Haircut, and a reading and open-mike series by the same name. It happens at the funky Dionysus Restaurant and Lounge, a neighborhood hangout for UB students, MICA kids, bicycle messengers, and anyone who likes margarita specials on Tuesdays.
Further south still, you’ll find yourself at ground zero of literary Baltimore. If you want a little ancient history in your writing, your first stop should be the Walters Art Museum, which houses work from ancient Egypt and Greece, Medieval and Renaissance art, illuminated manuscripts, Old Master and 19th-century paintings, and more. The Museum has been known to host a literary event or two, as well as up-and-coming local bands. Located in the beautiful, historic downtown district near the Washington Monument, the museum is within walking distance of the Stafford Hotel (now an apartment building for students), where F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed while his wife Zelda was being treated at Sheppard Pratt Hospital. Across the square, John Dos Passos wrote in the George Peabody Library at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute during the fifties.
Down the street is the renowned Enoch Pratt Free Library, the hub of Baltimore’s library system (which has more than twenty branches) and is the size of an entire city block. In 1882 Baltimore businessman Enoch Pratt gifted the City of Baltimore the central library and five branches along with an endowment of more than one million dollars, noting that the library “shall be for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color, who, when properly accredited, can take out the books if they will handle them carefully and return them.”