If you stand in the rubble of the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube and listen very, very hard to the first winds of autumn, you may hear echoes of a ragtime piano, or H. L. Mencken ordering another round, or even the slither of the cards as Dantini the Magician performs his magic act for the last time.
In a kind of exquisite irony, the demolition of the Charles Street landmark began on the first day of this year's Baltimore Book Festival. First to be razed was the Viennese Brauhaus Siegfried Weisberger had created in 1933 at the rear of his shop, making it probably the first bookstore in America with its own tap room, its own Bierstube.
By late last week, the front window had been punched out. The familiar sign with the Gothic letters -- "Peabody Book Shop" -- is gone. Books fallen from their shelves in moldering mounds smell of must and violated memories. Like a broken clock, a calendar from a Greek Orthodox church is stopped at May 1988, about the last time anybody took a real interest in running the place.
A Baltimore institution almost as revered as steamed crabs is being deconstructed by demolition, and for those who knew it, nostalgia rises with the dust from each splintered beam and scattered brick.
When he built the Stube, Siegfried Weisberger wanted to re-create a European cafe where people could drink a beer after browsing among his books. He pretty much succeeded.
Weisberger built a room with a high, beamed, pyramidal ceiling, hung with a ponderous wrought-iron chandelier made by one of his brothers. He put in plain wooden tables and chairs, and the Stube's first pictures, curios and busts, initially of Mendelssohn and Shakespeare.
There was a piano and a fireplace and the stuffed heads of a couple of dead beasts identified variously as elk or stags. The ambience of the "Siegfried Stube," as it was known while Weisberger owned it, hovered somewhere between a Black Forest inn and a Viennese cafe.
"I remember that on cold winter nights it was warm and cozy with a 'gemutlichkeit' atmosphere," says Ed Byer, a Federal Hill bon vivant of long standing. "When it snowed, people congregated there to have a glass and warm the cockles of their hearts. It was really fun and you didn't have to spend a lot of money."
The Stube attracted college students and their professors, writers, artists and musicians from the nearby Peabody Conservatory, soldiers, sailors and Marines during World War II, spooks and spooks-in-training at the Army's intelligence school at Fort Holabird, a wayward judge or two and a couple of generations of journalists.
Many Baltimoreans had their first beer there, or went there on their first grown-up date, carved the proof of their true love into the table top and came back the next week to do it all over again with a new date.
The late Jerome Melvin Edelstein, a distinguished bibliographer, literary scholar, author and librarian, fondly recalled his first drink at the Peabody in a letter to the Enoch Pratt Library on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.
Edelstein haunted the Washington Boulevard branch of the Pratt when he was growing up in the Baltimore of the 1930s. The librarian took him to the Peabody even though he was considerably under age, a malfeasance that, of course, could not happen today.
"We sat in a corner at one of the wooden tables and when a waiter asked what we would have, Mrs. M spoke up and said we would all have beer. What joy! My first 'drink' in public!"
The Stube was always so dark and smoky you could bring a chimpanzee in and nobody would notice, unless the chimp offered an untoward literary opinion. Edelstein survived that illegal first drink to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from the Johns Hopkins University and a host of other institutions of the highest learning, and went on to become librarian of the National Gallery of Art, among other lofty attainments.
During the Weisberger era, you could find a considerable number of literary lights of various wattage at the well-carved tables. Mencken drank there, and probably F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gerald Johnson, Lou Azrael, Patrick Skene Catling, Travis Kidd and most every other writer who paused in Baltimore long enough to buy a brew or a book.
Weisberger was an Austrian seaman who had washed up in Baltimore and opened a bookstore with his brother Hugo on Centre Street in the early 1920s. They moved to 913 N. Charles about 1927. Hugo died young, while Siegfried acquired a tweedy, professorial look that was somewhat undercut by his Groucho Marx mustache.
He actually loved books, perhaps keeping as many for his own library as he sold. He leaned toward the medical tomes favored by his clients from the medical schools. He had a branch across the street from the Hopkins medical school.
He also had impossibly high standards. In a famous outburst, he thundered against "ponies," the Cliffs Notes of his era.
"These young fellows come in here wanting a Greek pony or a Latin pony so they can translate their lessons with no work," he said. "Never will I sell them a pony. The original Greek or Latin, yes. Ponies never!"
Weisberger abandoned the Peabody in 1954, convinced that the "Age of the Boob" predicted by his friend Mencken had triumphed in America. The demolition of his shop may indicate that his conviction was not wrong, merely premature.
The frequently married Rose Boyajian Smith Pettus Hayes, the Stube's second most important proprietor, took over the place in 1957, when she was married to the fellow named Smith. The Peabody, which by then had a reputation for sedate Bohemianism, would segue into a moderate Beat Generation mode, and then mild hippie-ism. It was a stop on the "hip" circuit of the time, along with Morris Martick's Lower Tyson Street Saloon and Leon's incipient gay bar on upper Tyson.
"Everybody went to the Peabody. A lot of college kids, that's for sure," says Martick. Perhaps the doyen of Baltimore hipdom at 75, he still runs Martick's Restaurant Francais at the old stand on Mulberry and Tyson streets.
Rose Hayes would open a second bar upstairs, but she had the good sense not to mess with Siegfried's Stube. The old bar just became more sooty and cluttered with art and artifacts, mostly middle to high kitsch. Books became more and more incidental. Hayes still sold them, but she didn't pay much attention to their literary value. She guaranteed only that they'd have all their pages.
The Peabody had always had piano players and the occasional fiddler, but she widened the entertainment to include folk singers and guitarists, pop singers, movies, even plays like the corn classic melodrama, "The Drunkard."
She also installed Dantini the Magnificent, a Fells Point musician and Baltimore cultural treasure in his own right, who became identified with the Stube. Dantini was an ancient vaudevillian who spent 50 years polishing his act, never getting it quite right.
Dantini cultivated a striking demeanor, with a flowing silver beard people said made him look like Moses, Noah or Walt Whitman. He modeled for years at the Maryland Institute -- never naked, of course; he was a good Polish Catholic whose offstage name was Vincent Cierkes. But hundreds of portraits were made of him by artists as diverse as Joe Sheppard, Charlie Newton, Abbie Sangiamo and Paul Moscat.
Somebody once timed his act at 11 minutes, a length that pleased Rose Hayes. "I told him not to make it too long, because it took up drinking time," she said. She had a reputation for keeping a sharp eye on the cash register. "We clocked 7,000 who came in here to drink in one month," she rejoiced during her heyday.
One night in March 1979, Dantini, then 74, finished his act, sat down in a chair at the entrance to the Stube and collapsed into unconsciousness. He never woke up.
Rose Hayes died in 1986, and the Peabody Beer Stube pretty much died with her. Some desultory attempts were made to keep it going. The building ended up owned by a group known as the 913 North Charles Limited Partnership, which included "the principals of Cochran, Stephenson and Donkervoet," a leading local architectural firm.
A couple of development ideas collapsed, and the Peabody eventually started collapsing, too. A big hole opened in the north wall of the old four-story townhouse. The city condemned the building and ordered it torn down, and the 913 partnership was fined $4,000 for "demolition by neglect."
The building will soon be gone. The parking lot next door will no doubt be extended. And another piece of Baltimore's past paved over.
Pub Date: 10/06/97