Ever since the World Wide Web spawned a relatively cheap by-product known as Web cams, there's been no hiding from the technology. It's "The Truman Show" -- except everyone is a possible character.
Thousands of Web operators have set up thousands of cams to picture the most ordinary locations -- from back yards and business offices to refrigerators and even a coffee maker, where people watch people make coffee. But wait, it gets sexier.
You can watch videos of the region's highways. Watch people get their hair cut at Toby's Barber Shop in Lexington Park. Watch people drink beer at Max's on Broadway in Fells Point. Theoretically, you could watch people drive the region's highways after getting their hair cut and drinking beer.
There are White House cams, Humane Society pet cams, Loch Ness cams, and the Ocean City Fish Weighing Web cam.
And then there's Atomic Cam, the official online eye of Atomic Books, Baltimore's famously "alternative" bookstore (in the way Johnny Rotten was an "alternative" to Barry Manilow). Customers to this den of offbeat and hard-core bric-a-brac can be watched in freeze-framed, 60-second intervals by anyone with a Web-wired computer.
Twisted Brother is watching.
Guilt-free shopping? Forget about it, says its Web site, www.atomicbooks.com.
Sorry, no self-respecting man in his self-respecting business clothes can innocently browse the shelves of the underground book and comic store without being noticed, without being spied on while perusing the latest Bondage Gallery magazine.
We see you and every nasty little thing you do, and it goes on your permanent record, the name of your crime carved into your back like an Etch-O-Sketch of shame, the scars and lesions a testament to your questionable taste and repugnant sensibilities ...
A man can't simply sample artful pin-ups of '50s posing queen Bettie Page or assess the intellectual worth of the video "Sex Rituals of the Occult" without his video image being available to the world on Atomic Book's Web site and Web camera.
ATOMIC CAM likes to watch. In fact, we like to ogle, gawk, stare down, fixate and wink. ... So we took a picture of you to make it last longer.
So says the Web statement from Scott Huffines, a former Friendly's restaurant manager who's graduated to proud and virtually poor proprietor of Baltimore's Atomic Books. Formerly of Charles Street, currently of Maryland Avenue (cheaper rent), the bookstore has been around since 1992. Essex native Huffines, 36, has had it on camera for about four years.
"Part of it is just to [mess] around with people," says Huffines, who's planning to activate a third camera in his store. Regulars have learned where the blind spots are; consequently, more cameras are required. "It's kind of like the 'Big Brother' thing," Huffines says, "but in a fun vein."
It's not that shoppers aren't warned. "Warning: You are Under Constant Surveillance," says a sign. Perhaps this neighborhood bookstore is best viewed from a distance -- a home or office computer. This isn't your mother's Bibelot. Atomic Books, whose slogan is "Literary Finds for Mutated Minds," is scary.
A thought upon entering: Will they let me leave or drug me and tie me up? Along with the latest books and comics on Japanese anime and manga, there is literature on freak shows, "mayhem" (true crime, disasters), and good old-fashioned trash -- "a reading list from hell," as patron John Waters has blurbed the bookstore.
Hesitant patrons might loiter near a particular 'zine bookshelf, barely move a muscle and pray not to be noticed by manager Sarah Boonstoppel at the front counter or by owner Huffines watching the room on his college-issued Zenith in the back room. But, minus the blind spots, they see all.
"Guess I'm nosy," Huffines says. "Or a voyeur."
Judging by the images from its Web site, the action at Atomic Books generally features a male customer coming into the store and, with his jacketed back to a store camera, flipping through, say, Perfect 10 magazine -- for the articles. The camera takes a long shot, so customers' faces usually aren't recognizable.
"There's really not a whole lot going on," Huffines admits. "Mainly, you see Sarah packing up a mail order."
Boonstoppel -- the great Sarah B. -- appears to be the Atomic Cam's main attraction. Through the continued thrills of technology, some people e-mail Boonstoppel even as they watch her pack mail orders or watch her e-mail them back. If she gets a haircut or takes a sip of Coke, her actions are noted. Your hair is getting longer, said one e-mail. One guy offered her a ticket to Greece. It can get a little creepy, she says.
"At first I wondered why we needed the cam," says Boonstoppel, 26. "I had old boyfriends who were creeped out by it."
But after being on camera eight hours each business day for four years now, Boonstoppel rarely thinks about the Web cam pointed at her. She just goes about her business, restocking the store's freakish merchandise and packing mail orders. Still, "if I have to scratch my [backside], I do move off-camera."
During a recent visit to Atomic Books (a sanctioned professional tour), we witnessed firsthand an action-packed Web cam moment.
"Hey, Jaime!" shouts Huffines, who on his Zenith sees a familiar face enter the store. "Excuse me," he says. "I have to go pay my City Paper ad." But before he cuts the check, we spot this Jaime person looking at some weird 'zine, confirming something long suspected: City Paper is crawling with freaks.
We wander from Huffines' electronic lair to the front counter, home of Sarah Boonstoppel. Instantly, she receives an e-mail. "Some guy is complaining because he can't see me," she says. Evidently, we are blocking his view. Guy e-mails again: "Beware the guy with the extra 50 pounds and gray hair." Fifty extra pounds? Even digital TV is not slimming.
Through some sort of software, Huffines can determine the locations of the computers that log on to the Web cam and the store's catalog site. As we look over his shoulder, Huffines points to someone from NASA surfing through "adult graphic materials" in the catalog. They get a lot of military business, too, he says.
"A lot of people who should be working are playing around out there," says Huffines, who makes his work resemble play. It's certainly more exotic than the food service industry.
He estimates he gets about 100,000 hits a week on a conglomerate of "Atomic Books" sites, which include Richard Stone's "American Dime Museum" (next door to the bookstore) and sideshow connoisseur James Taylor's "Shocked & Amazed" site. As for actual humans coming into Atomic Books, Huffines gets those, too. People love their freaks, anime, death scenes and pin-up queens of the past.
Celebrities occasionally duck in.
Huffines' Web cam pictured magicians Penn & Teller during their recent visit to Baltimore. In the past, John Waters has been seen on camera, as well as "Homicide's" Kyle Secor and Andre Braugher, who apparently saves his best work for other TV screens.
"Braugher was in here about an hour, but we didn't get a good shot of him," Huffines says. "I just got his big, shiny head."
Advance notice No. 2
I don't like bums and beggars, I can't stand loiterers, and I absolutely hate people who bounce checks and never repay their debts, continues Huffines' online mission statement about Atomic Cam.
Besides busting loiterers, the Web cam visually flogs customers for bouncing checks or for insulting the boss. In one example posted the Atomic Books site, a customer is pictured leaning on the counter. Huffines has dubbed him the "Drunken Creep": This goofball came into the store looking for marijuana grow books. ... As he leaves the store, he looks back and says, 'See you later, Fatso!' Now I haven't been called a fatso since grade school. So I just looked at him and called him a freak.
Apparently, the posting proved to be a deterrent; the staff hasn't seen Mr. Creep in the store since.
Huffines is actually camera shy himself and for fair reason. When he's within range, the store camera usually records the back of his head. "I keep hearing from people that I'm getting a bald spot," he says.
The bookstore owner prefers to work behind the camera, selling Highway Safety Victims videos or Japanese adult comics -- "they're so stupid, but people buy them." Even when the occasional Web surfer asks him to dance in front of the camera, Huffines knows they really want Sarah Boonstoppel in front of the camera.
At Atomic Books, she's the next best thing to Bettie Page.
Want a peek? Find the Atomic Cam at www.atomicbooks.com/ atomic-cam/atomic-cam.html.