'City that reads' slows its pace at new bookstores

"Nu, Abe?"

I'm hollering this yesterday morning, at the corner of Park and Mulberry, outside the place that isn't Abe Sherman's old bookstore anymore. The shop's empty and dark now, and all its formerly trapped words have fled elsewhere. But I wanted to let Abe's ghost know the latest bit of news about bookstores in Baltimore, which, if you'll pardon the expression, would just about kill Abe if he were alive today.


The modern book people are marketing charm. Oy, Abe, can you believe this? They want us to drop in and stay awhile and, if we buy the latest John Grisham thriller or this week's New Yorker, swell. And, if not, it was their pleasure to see us, and please come back again soon. Abe, can you believe this kind of behavior?

Some of us, who remember when Abe Sherman ran the most eclectic and idiosyncratic bookstore in town, cannot. We can hear Abe now. Dead at 89, his persnickety ghost still stalks the empty remains of that rumpled, dusty, legendary little book store of his 10 years after Abe's departure. His spirit's probably still chasing the alleged slackers, the ones who dared browse a few pages of a book while deciding if they wanted to buy the thing, and he's letting 'em have it with every vocable in his expansive vocabulary:


"This ain't no library, kid. If ya ain't buying nothin', get the hell outta here, I ain't runnin' no charity operation."

The words would cut through the air like knives thrown in old Mexican bandit movies. And then all 5 feet nothing of Abe would get right up into some big palooka's eyes, and he'd get all purple in his pale, pointy, elfin face, and he'd say, "Didn't ya hear me? You wanta browse, go to the Pratt. If ya ain't buyin' nothing, then .."

Abe, Abe, Abe. He was impatient and irascible and irritating, and if you survived all of those it was possible to find Abe delightful and funny and his book store a treasure house. But he was light years from today's book emporiums, and he wouldn't know what to make of them.

For openers, some of them are moving into the city now, these newcomers with the fancy, unpronounceable names like Bibelot, with the Barnes & Noble names that sound like law firms, and the ones like Borders, which started drawing the new lines on book store behavior around here.

Barnes & Noble last week unveiled plans to open a huge book and music operation in the Cordish Co.'s $25 million Power Plant project. The next day, Bibelot, already doing swell business in Pikesville and Timonium, announced it was negotiating for two city sites. One will apparently be in blossoming Canton and the other somewhere "near downtown." Borders must be listening to all this talk and thinking, "What is this? The city that reads?"

For a long time, such a well-intended slogan had turned into a sneer. Variations abounded: the city that bleeds, based on its murder rate; the city that breeds, based on its teen-age pregnancy rate.

But something's going on here now that involves not only a city reading but a style of life evolving. The new bookstores are not only places to browse, but to meet up, to sit on couches, to sip coffee and have a bite to eat, to listen to a visiting writer spend an evening talking about writing, to shmooze. Out of such things, a community comes to life.

The world slows down a little at a bookstore. Everything moves too quickly now, and reading lets us catch our breath. We take the world at our own speed and not the world's. Also, the bookstores become magnets. Harborplace, for all its touristy pleasures, is still essentially a shopping mall next to water. Reading involves thinking; bookstores draw those who think, and whose brains become part of a city, and who exit the bookstores and discover parts of the city they'd forgotten about, or never knew existed, or imagined the worst about.


The new super bookstores are supermarkets of civility. In his day, Abe Sherman's store would have fit into a single nook of one of these new places. And those little bookstores remaining in the city today are thus expressing anxieties: Will Bibelot and Barnes & Noble drive them out of business?

They shouldn't. Location still counts. The charm of a place still counts, and its service to customers, its desire to cater to their needs. A place such as Adrian's Book Cafe in Fells Point, or Louie's Book Store on Charles Street, is valued for its ambience as well as its special stock.

Everybody's learned valuable lessons since Abe Sherman's day. You can't just open the doors and dare people to show up and then move them along at the world's familiar, frenzied pace. You can slow things down in a bookstore. Pull up a chair, have a little coffee. Better yet, have a leisurely browse. It makes the whole world seem civilized.

Pub Date: 2/27/97