Clearly on a mission, four men recently marched across Eastern Boulevard in Essex carrying pieces of birthday cake on paper plates.
They were emissaries of Kenneth C. Coldwell, the birthday celebrant and veteran publisher of the Avenue. He was extending a symbolic olive branch to a group of former employees who quit his weekly paper and started their own paper, the Essex Times, about 100 yards away.
It didn't work.
"There was suspicion the cake had been sabotaged in some way. When they left, we dumped the cake in the trash can," said Jackie Nickel, Mr. Coldwell's former managing editor who had worked at the paper for 14 years.
Things are a tad testy these days in the 400 block of Eastern Blvd., the heart of old Essex where you can get a bountiful meatloaf platter at Uncle Eddie's Restaurant or have your spiritual needs addressed at the Covenant Ministries, Pastor Levi Webb presiding.
At a time when newspapers across the country are fighting tough financial times, and most cities are left with a single major daily, Essex finds itself smack in the middle of an old-fashioned newspaper war.
Loyalties already are strained -- some of Mr. Coldwell's former advertisers have jumped to the new paper. A waitress at the Trojan Horse diplomatically declines to discuss the tension between the two newspaper shops, saying, "I got to wait on all of them."
Community papers cover the neighborhood details usually not found in larger publications -- births, deaths, weddings and news of local military members graduating from boot camp.
In a recent edition of the Avenue, the theft of Jimmy Lupo's videocassette recorder from a local repair shop was front-page news. So were accounts of a feud in a citizen patrol group and of residents' expectations from the county's next school superintendent.
The Times' first front page featured a progress report on efforts to revitalize the Essex-Middle River area and a story about the renovation of Essex Elementary School.
Such intensely local issues will be the battleground as the free newspapers fight for circulation and advertising dollars in eastern Baltimore County.
"There will be peace in the valley again, but one will win out over the other," said Karen Kalinowski, an activist from Bengies-Chase. "Something in the hierarchy at the Avenue made all those people jump ship."
Those who left the Avenue were Ms. Nickel, the managing editor; Linda Mrok, director of sales, 20 years; Elizabeth McGraw, ad sales, 10 years; Calvin Jefferson, reporter, three months; and Kari Krause, editorial typist, one year. Several other former staffers have become part-time reporters for the Times.
Their complaints range from lewd comments to salary disputes. One former employee says that someone at the Avenue -- not Mr. Coldwell -- used a computer to superimpose the faces of two young women employees' on photos of lingerie models and nude figures.
Mr. Coldwell, who owns the Avenue and has been at the paper for 21 years, said such allegations are "totally unfounded, totally absurd. If they had a problem, why did they stay here for 20 years and 13 years?"
He added, "They thought they had a better opportunity and they took it. There were some people who didn't want to conform to change."
He said he doesn't worry about the new paper on the block -- noting that the approximately 300 ads he runs weekly are testimony to his product's success.
But those at the Times say they are seeing encouraging signs for their newspaper, whose first edition, 32 pages half-filled with ads, was published Oct. 26.
"Perhaps two papers can't survive long in eastern Baltimore County," Mrs. Mrok said. "But we will be the ones on top in the end."
The Times will be printed biweekly until Dec. 1, when it will start coming out weekly. The Times has a circulation of 35,000; the Avenue has a combined circulation of 75,000 in Essex, Perry Hall and North East editions.
Financial support for the new paper comes from local businessman and Republican Party activist George Wilbanks, 63, chairman of the board of the Times-Herald chain in the county. Marina Brockmann, who was chief of staff for Roger B. Hayden when he was county executive, is the publisher. Mr. Hayden is a member of the chain's board.
"Those who left the Avenue contacted us, they initiated conversations about another paper in Essex," Ms. Brockmann said. "They have years of experience and real love for the community. They want to put out a paper that comes from the heart."
The emergence of a new voice in Essex is welcomed by most residents. Some feel both papers will survive; others cheer for their favorite.
State Sen. Michael J. Collins, a 6th District Democrat who writes a column for the Avenue, said such competition is healthy.
"Two voices is desirable in the community," Mr. Collins said. "The Times has a lot to live up to because the Avenue is a good newspaper."
Some longtime Avenue supporters, however, no longer advertise with Mr. Coldwell's paper -- some for financial reasons, others for philosophical ones.
"I advertised with Ken Coldwell since the '70s, but I won't be with him after this month," said Morris Schechman, president of Fleming and Sheeley floor coverings in Essex. "His rates went up too high too frequently. I have to see where I'll go after December."
Evelyn McKenny, who placed ads for St. Clement's Roman Catholic Church bingo and for Beneficial Plus Realty of Golden Ring, says she withdrew from the Avenue "because they were unresponsive, especially regarding political aspects. They favored only one side, and that's OK but not for me."