For the past few years, Atomic Books owner Benn Ray envisioned one day transforming the back area of his Hampden bookstore from a record store into a cafe. And instead of serving coffee, the bar would sell beer and wine.
“I like the idea of being able to buy a book or a magazine or a comic, sitting some place and having a decent local or craft beer, and reading something,” Ray, who created the “Said What?” comic that runs in b, said over the phone last week. “Essentially, it was building a space I'd want to be in.”
In late August, Ray's vision became reality when Eightbar opened. The bar — named after cartoonist Daniel Clowes' 1989 comic book of the same name — was inspired by Ray's favorite former Baltimore bookstores that once had their own cafes, including Louie's Bookstore Cafe and the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube. The official grand opening was Oct. 11.
Housed where the Celebrated Summer Records shop once was (it is now next door), Eightbar is a cozy bar and lounge that works as a fantastic companion to one of the city's best bookstores. With tables, seats at the bar and comfortable couches, Eightbar makes a fine setting for reading and discussing the art found within the store's walls.
With its solid-colored walls and minimal ornaments, Eightbar looks restrained, particularly for a bar in a comic book store. Most eye-catching is the top of the L-shaped bar, which is a collage of Clowes' different works, from New Yorker covers to scenes from “Ghost World,” arguably his most famous comic book. A longtime fan, Ray says designing the bar with only Clowes' work made Eightbar feel complete.
“His art was diverse enough, and playful and flexible enough, that it didn't necessarily seem like you were just looking at one artist's art all over the place,” he said. “It's diverse but it feels consistent.”
Atomic Books also frequently hosts events in the store, and Ray wanted a space for crowds to mingle comfortably. Ray says he wanted to provide a customer with an experience unlike one Hampden currently offers.
“Sometimes I like to go out with friends and have a couple of drinks, but there are some places you have to order food. There are some places where you're going to have to leave in a few minutes because a band is coming on,” Ray said. “I wanted some place that was going to be easier, a more relaxed gathering space.”
On a recent Saturday night, Eightbar looked and felt just how Ray hoped. It was the weekend before Halloween, so I ordered a DuClaw Hellrazer American IPA (a bottle reasonably priced at $4) to get in the spirit. A patron seated at the bar had just purchased “The Wes Anderson Collection,” which led us to debate the director's best films. (If this sounds too on-the-nose to be true, well, it happened. Also, I'm a “Tenenbaums” guy.) Two men and a woman sat at a table by the bar; one clutched a vinyl record of “Youth of America” by the influential punk band Wipers, a likely recent purchase from next door.
Ray, who was working behind the bar, called scenes like this the reason he followed through with the idea.
“I'm like, 'Wow, that's exactly how I intended this to be. This is fantastic,'" he said.
It is unfair to hold Eightbar to the critical standards of traditional bars because, simply, it isn't one. It sells cans and bottles of beer, wine and packaged goods, but there are no drafts or liquor. Still, Eightbar takes its alcohol selection seriously, offering a nice balance of craft (Terrapin Rye Pale Ale from Athens, Ga., was $4, while an Ommegang Abby Ale, brewed in Cooperstown, N.Y., cost $8) and local (Brewer's Art Ozzy Ale was $4) beers. Sixteen-ounce cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and National Bohemian were $3. Ray has enjoyed turning customers onto local brewers.
“Tourists don't necessarily think to shop at local liquor stores, and a couple of times people have tried a local beer they had never had before and decided to buy a six-pack to take with them some place,” Ray said. “That's also very gratifying.”
Ray says he's “not completely opposed” to one day expanding the bar to include taps, but logistical issues would have to be addressed first. (There is currently no walk-in refrigerator to store kegs, for example.) For now, it's not something Atomic Books is pursuing.
“We're happy with the way [Eightbar] is coming along right now,” Ray said. “We're just seeing how it's going and hoping it continues in the direction it's been heading, which is pretty positive.”
Back story: Atomic Books owner Benn Ray had long wanted a bar and lounge in the back of his bookstore, so at the end of the summer, he moved the store's record shop, Celebrated Summer, next door and opened Eightbar. It sells beers, wine and package goods.
Parking: Free and metered on the street.
Where: In the back of Atomic Books (3620 Falls Road, Hampden)
Contact: 410-662-4444, atomicbooks.com
Open: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.