Read Street still has flair of the '60s

Mention Read Street and some Baltimoreans will recall a painful tooth extraction at the Medical Arts Building. Others will think about the first pair of bell bottom jeans they bought in 1968.

The weekend's second annual Read Street Festival was more of a blue jeans occasion. Baltimore's version of a Carnaby Street and Greenwich Village staged a street fair that got half rained out Saturday but bounced back yesterday. About 3,000 persons attended.


"Our goal was to showcase the neighborhood, to want to come back," said Joe Pitta, co-chairman of the event and an owner of Neal's hair studio in the 200 block of West Read. Like many area merchants, he resides around the corner.

The street seemed to come into its own in the 1960s and early 70s, when places like the Bum Steer, Body Furniture, the Hair Garage, Bead Experience and Divine Trash flourished as counterculture businesses.


The festival was sponsored by HERO (Health Education Resource Organization), the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore and the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens. Each of these organizations is located nearby and plays a role in the life of the neighborhood, often considered the residential center of gay Baltimore. As part of the event, thousands of maps detailing neighborhood businesses and cultural spots were distributed.

Observers of the Read Street scene came to drop into stores with such bizarre contrasts as masks of Pee Wee Herman on the same wall as a statue of the Infant of Prague.

The festival ran along Read Street from Cathedral to Howard, roughly from the Medical Arts Building and the old Albion Hotel to Antique Row. While this is all part of the Mount Vernon neighborhood, the Read Street-Park Avenue-Tyson Street district has long maintained a separate identity around a backbone of rowhouses restored more than 40 years ago.

In a neighborhood filled with architectural eyefuls, the sight of the worse-for-wear Brexton Apartments at Park Avenue and Tyson Street draw a comment from one Reservoir Hill visitor.

"It's horrible the Brexton has been in such sad disrepair for so long. Look at it. It reminds me of the Dakota in New York City where 'Rosemary's Baby' was filmed," said Robert Lane, who lives in the 700 block of Reservoir St.

"We did have a number of people who said they thought our houses were so beautiful -- especially on Tyson Street -- that next year we'd like to do a house tour," said Maria Veneziano, the festival's co-chair.

More than a few persons noted the locked door on Antiquemania, long a Read Street institution. Its owner, Frank G. Whitson, died this summer. He often described his shop as "Americana at its worst," but he was being modest. Many of the items that he sold for under $20 some 30 years ago are worth tenfold more today.

During the 1960s, Whitson introduced the leaded-glass Tiffany style lighting fixture to the Baltimore antique market. He also sold old advertising tins, iron toys, Coca Cola trays and Log Cabin syrup cans.


Even though his shop at Tyson and Read streets is closed, typical Whitson merchandise remains in the window -- old Chesapeake Bay oyster tins. They are reminiscent of the advertising items and cigar store Indians that made Whitson and Read Street synonymous for cluttered, funky collectibles.

The dean of Read Street merchants is Lilyan Alberts, who opened a shop called the Clothes Horse 38 years ago. She began with clothes and a small line of books. Today her book offering is far larger than the apparel. The place is known for its collection of T'ai Chi literature.

"When I opened up, Mondawmin was the only mall in Baltimore," she said.

"Howard and Lexington was the main drag. So much has changed, but Read Street is still a nice street. We get all kinds of stores and all kinds of people, black, white and Asian.

"We all get along," she said.