Jacques Kelly: One short block in Baltimore has run the gamut, from aspirin to alcohol

This week’s fire in the Charles Village Pub has closed a revered local gathering place. This tavern sits on a one-block stretch of St. Paul that has, over the past 90-odd years, established itself as a handy neighborhood walk-to destination.

For those of us who live nearby, visiting the 3100 block of St. Paul Street is an indispensable fixture of daily life.

Shops and businesses have been opening and closing here since pharmacist Ephraim Bacon — who was also secretary of the Maryland Board of Pharmacy — bought a lot at St. Paul and 31st streets and built his own drugstore in 1921.

Bacon named his building Homestead and lived in one of its five apartments. It was here that he died in 1936. He sold a lot of aspirin and chocolate sodas, and people liked the convenience of having a corner store just a few steps from their homes.

Alex and Esther Fromm ran the shop 50 years ago after it ceased having a working pharmacy. Their soda fountain and sandwich board caught the lunch trade, and patent medicines sold well in the era when milk of magnesia was a favored cure-all.

The Fromms’ store later became the Hopkins Store, a crammed variety shop where you could find what you needed. Its next occupant was a Donna’s restaurant. Since that closed in 2016, the place has remained an eatery.

City planners would call this block a mixed-use area. The block once had another apartment house, The Boulevard, at 32nd Street. The building was razed for a branch of the old Maryland National Bank and the Village Book Nook.

The block’s Eddie’s Market, which has operated by that name since 1962, has been a grocery location since the 1930s. It began as a Sanitary Food Market, then became a unit in the Wagner’s food store chain. The current proprietor, Jerry Gordon, is the great nephew of Edward Levy, founder of Eddie’s Market.

In 1931, as North Baltimore was growing — three streetcar lines passed here — the pressure mounted for more stores. Many homeowners converted their first floors into businesses and lived upstairs.

What is now the Charles Village Pub was a Log Cabin Candy Shop in 1931. It later became the Blue Jay Restaurant, and, in a celebrated case in 1960, composer and band leader Duke Ellington was refused service there in the waning days of racial segregation in places of public accommodation. Ellington had given a concert on the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, and students picketed the restaurant when he was turned away.

It was not until 1964 that the Blue Jay was permitted to serve alcohol. Two esteemed judges, Reuben Oppenheimer and Anselm Sodaro, debated the issue of a liquor license. The license was fought by homeowners who resided in the nearby Oakenshawe neighborhood. It took four attempts before the Liquor Board granted a license. The judges, as they weighed the license case, mentioned cultural institutions in the neighborhood. Were they trying to keep intoxicants away from the Johns Hopkins University?

Elsewhere on the block, no one debated the need for a pound of coffee and a sack of potatoes. In the early 1930s, a national food chain, Atlantic and Pacific grocery stores — A&P — conjoined two properties and had a small supermarket, with wooden floors and red coffee grinders. When it closed in the early 1970s, the former A&P site morphed into the Homewood Delicatessen, a delightful corned beef and lox destination.

Other favorites emerged. Rice’s Bakery sold sweets and breads with an art deco setting at the Duane Bakery. Heil’s meatpacking had a shop for its pork products, and Gordon’s florist had flowers for Union Memorial Hospital patients.

The Acme stores, a competitor of A&P, also had a small grocery operation on the block that seemed to supply all life’s requirements, including ice cream. So did Read’s drug store, who advertised Hendler’s Ice Cream — “the velvet kind” — that drew sweet-tooth addicts to the store.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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