Corner store reimagined as Highlandtown Gallery

The old-fashioned corner store is thriving on a quiet Southeast Baltimore cross street. The neighborhood institution has been repurposed as the Highlandtown Gallery, a place where local artists show their works in a well-lighted, clean place within an atmospheric Baltimore neighborhood.

At the corner of Gough and Conkling, two blocks north of busy Eastern Avenue, the gallery has some traditional neighbors — a corner bar (the Laughing Pint), a funeral home (Joseph Zannino), a Roman Catholic church (Our Lady of Pompei) and a grocery store and delicatessen (DiPasquale's).

Just when you thought the things we savor in our old neighborhoods were disappearing, it's reassuring to visit this corner. It's tucked deep within the Southeast Baltimore street grid. The pavements are clean, the Formstone is now old enough to be historic, and it's just plain picturesque.

"It was a nice, wholesome place to grow up, where the emphasis was on family, education and hard work," said Felicia Zannino-Baker, who owns the Highlandtown Gallery and grew up at her family's funeral home.

"As a corner store, it served many purposes over time. It was a pharmacy and a tailor's shop. It was always a mini-anchor in the neighborhood. As this community has evolved, so have its merchants," she said.

When the old corner store across from her parents' business came on the market 10 years ago, she bought it, just because it seemed like a nice building. Then, in August 2011, hers was one of the buildings damaged during the earthquake. Its Conkling Street facade gave way, but the building did not collapse.

"I was devastated. I had no insurance to cover the damage. I was almost paralyzed with worry, but then I started making some calls," Zannino-Baker said. Her bank helped, as did master planner Chris Ryer at the Southeast Community Development Corp.

She renovated the building, added two apartments upstairs and figured out a way to install the tiny Charm City Italian Ice shop in the Gough Street side of the property. Her new pressed-tin ceiling went in last week. It was the final piece of a costly two-year effort. She followed guidelines for historic structures, too.

Zannino-Baker is a high-energy, enthusiastic business person. She opens her gallery Thursday through Saturday at 8 a.m. She has a local baker, Elaine's Brown Sugar, supply sweets and also serves Highgrounds, a Highlandtown coffee. She is a resident of Northwest Washington and has a second business, Magnolia Design.

A former president of the Highlandtown Merchants Association, she recalled how she spent 13 years, kindergarten through the 12th grade, at the tiny Pompei parochial school just up the block.

"I went straight from plaid uniforms and Peter Pan collars to the Maryland Institute [College of Art], where I encountered purple hair," she said. "Baltimore is about real life and all the imperfections too."

Her goal, she told me, was to have affordable, local art for people moving into the neighborhood. She celebrates local artists, writers and musicians.

"I am trying to serve the first-time art buyer," she said.

She also toasts grand traditions. Historic photos of Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church were on a video screen in the back of the store, which had copies of "German Catholic Parishes of Maryland and Pennsylvania" by local author John Foertschbeck Jr. This is bedrock local history, appealing to a knowing local audience.

I spoke with a local artist, Debbie Lynn Zwiebach, whose exhibit opens Saturday at the Highlandtown Gallery. For many years, she supported herself as she worked at Fells Point bars such as Turkey Joe's, Duda's, the Dead End Saloon and the Waterfront Hotel.

Zwiebach, who graduated in 1973 from MICA, recalled that Mayor William Donald Schaefer turned Baltimore into "a real stopping place," she said. "He used to come in Turkey Joe's on Saturday afternoon. All he would have was a birch beer."

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