If you stumble through Fells Point late enough Saturday (or early enough the next day), swing by the independent bookstore on the corner of Aliceanna and South Ann streets, and peer into the window, you’ll catch a glimpse of something strange: a group of people reading aloud while the city sleeps.
Don’t be spooked — they’ll be celebrating “Doomsday,” an annual event started last year by Baltimore’s National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre. This year, the 24-hour Poe-themed read-a-thon will be co-hosted at Greedy Reads’ Fells Point shop. Enoch Pratt Free Library is also a partner in the event.
“It’s quirky, like Baltimore is,” said Alex Zavistovich, the founder and artistic director of The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre.
Zavistovich started “Doomsday” last summer as a locally oriented take on “Bloomsday,” an international celebration of the Irish writer James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
“Why focus on an inscrutable Irish writer when we have a perfectly inscrutable American writer, right here in Baltimore?” said Zavistovich, 62.
It was in Baltimore that Poe met his wife, wrote short fiction and poetry while living on North Amity Street, and met his demise, soon after reportedly being discovered in a gutter in Fells Point. Poe, who died in 1849, is known for his macabre works of poetry and prose, including standouts like “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven” (the last of which served as inspiration for Baltimore’s football team).
He’s laid to rest on the grounds of Westminster Hall on Fayette Street, but his dark spirit is brought to life again during “Doomsday,” with a livestreamed reading of some of his most well-known works — and also some of his more obscure ones, compiled in “The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe,” published by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House.
Local celebrities, including Maryland State Del. Mark Edelson, WYPR host Tom Hall and Baltimore-based authors Brandi Collins-Dexter, Sarah Pinsker, Jeannie Vanasco and Jung Yun, are slated to participate.
“Baltimore is rather Poe-obsessed,” Zavistovich said. “His celebrity is an anchor to the Baltimore brand.”
The event also is a fundraiser for The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre, which Zavistovich started three years ago. Since then, the nonprofit theater has released a series of audio adaptations of Poe stories, available on NPR, Amazon and other platforms under the name “Poe Theatre on the Air,” and debuted its first live production last fall.
The inaugural “Doomsday” was streamed from Zavistovich’s home, where a troupe of actors gathered to read Poe’s prose in August.
“Last year was exhausting,” said Zavistovich, noting that he read from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. and “called in some favors” from friends to take equally tedious shifts.
Adam Adkins, one such participant, said he and others brought pajamas to wear when they weren’t reading and tried to nap between their stints. Not all of the stories were riveting.
“I got one that was extremely dry, at like five in the morning, and I had no moisture in my throat,” said Adkins, 38.
He couldn’t recall the name of the Poe text that failed to pique his interest, but noted that the group read from a book of Poe’s short stories and started over again from the beginning once the readers had made it from cover to cover.
Nevertheless, Adkins, an actor, was hooked — and said he will participate again this year, as a “floater” who can read when needed to fill in gaps. It’s likely he and other actors will be assigned to the “graveyard shift,” as Julia Fleischaker, the owner of Greedy Reads, dubbed the overnight portion of “Doomsday.”
In February, Zavistovich approached Fleischaker about joining forces to put on the unusual event.
“I knew right off the bat that I wanted Greedy Reads to be a part of it,” said Fleischaker, 47.
The reading slots offered to local celebrities filled up weeks in advance, according to Fleischaker and Zavistovich. High demand for “The Black Cat” caused a “tug of war,” Zavistovich added.
Radio host Tom Hall doesn’t know which Poe piece he will be reading, but he said “Doomsday” is a chance to burnish Baltimore’s image as a funky and unique city.
“This is one of those little events that helps Baltimore live up to that reputation,” said Hall, who hosts “Midday” Mondays through Fridays and “What are You Reading?” every fourth Friday of the month on WYPR.
During daylight hours on Saturday and Sunday, Greedy Reads will set up a table for readers outside its Fells Point store, and the shop will be open. Overnight, when the store is closed, they’ll move inside, where passersby still can watch in person as they listen along online.
“We’ll be visible from the window, if anybody wants to walk by and offer us coffee,” Fleischaker said. “This is an endurance event for us, but we don’t expect anyone else to make it an endurance event.”
Greedy Reads keeps a handful of Poe texts stocked, including the book everyone will read from on “Doomsday” and a copy of “The Raven,” Fleischaker said. As a child, “Annabel Lee” was her favorite poem.
“I love the idea of ‘Doomsday’ because to me, it feels a lot like Baltimore itself,” she said. “It feels kind of quirky, fun — with impeccable literary credentials.”
Poe fans can donate to The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre and tune in for the read-a-thon starting May 20 via the theater’s givebutter.com/Doomsday2023 campaign. It will also be livestreamed on YouTube.