The interior of the former bank on Hampden's 36th Street is newly painted in red and yellow, and has the bright, cozy aura of an old community library. Cheery throw rugs, comfortable chairs, ambient music, and shelves of books and magazines bid customers to browse through titles such as "The X-Rated Bible," "The History of Murder" and "Small Favors," a girly comic for lesbians.
The brick building with the cute little cupola is the new home of Atomic Books, which opens today. Revived by the affianced Rachel Whang and Benn Ray, it is a ma-and-pa enterprise for the new millennium, an independent bookstore specializing in dangerous ideas and obscure titles, but one that is user-friendly and centrally located in a plucky commercial corridor.
Atomic Books, (slogan: Literary Finds for Mutated Minds), is all about a "punk" aesthetic that prizes authenticity and originality over monocultural mind control, Whang and Ray say. It's a kinder, gentler punk; not nihilistic a la Joey Ramone, yet raw and real, a bit like Baltimore itself.
After eight years of operation on Charles Street and then Maryland Avenue, owner Scott Huffines closed Atomic Books four months ago. That was that, he figured. As a clearinghouse for underground and unusual comics, the store was a rarity - for any city, let alone Baltimore - and Huffines had acquired a thriving, international mail-order business. But he wasn't able to sustain the store and afford basics like health insurance.
The store's closing was mourned by many, and several former customers approached Huffines with offers to buy a piece of the business - be it the inventory or vintage sideshow banners that hung on the walls.
"I didn't want to devalue the name, and I didn't want to sell the business outright, so that my vision would turn into something I'd be embarrassed of," Huffines says.
When they approached him, Whang and Ray impressed Huffines with their trustworthiness and aesthetic sensibilities. Besides, they had experience. In Bloomington, Ind., Whang had helped run the Daisy Brain Media Center, a kind of cable television cooperative. Ray once managed Geppi's Comic World at the Inner Harbor. What's more, they didn't want a piece of the store; they wanted the whole thing.
After Atomic Books closed in December, Whang, 31, remembers thinking, "I've got to save it." Comic books and books "have just been a huge part of my life," she says.
For Ray, Atomic Books "defined the Baltimore I lived in: Club Charles, the Charles Theater. ... It upset me to lose it. It was a valuable service, an outlet for writers and artists."
The couple shared "the same kind of view as I do about Baltimore," Huffines says. "It's important to have cool things going on in Baltimore and not to see things die off, especially [in] the indie or alternative community." All too often, Huffines says he has seen a band break up or a club close, with nothing to replace them. When Atomic Books shut its doors, "a lot of people were shocked," he says. "John Waters gave me hell about it."
Ray won't say what he paid for the business, joking instead that Huffines lost it in a card game. Incorporated as Wunderpants Productions, he and Whang will operate the bookstore while Huffines reboots Atomic Books' Web site and online catalog. The store's focus remains the same but, under new ownership, its offerings have increased.
Ray, 32, plans to continue in his day job as a managing editor for the GameShark division of InterAct Accessories, a Hunt Valley electronic game company. He is also the editor of an interactive e-mail 'zine, the Mobtown Shank, an irreverent, arts-oriented weekly about life in Baltimore.
Whang will run the shop day-to-day and continue to produce her intriguing print 'zine, Daybook, in which contributors from around the world log a day in their lives, melding the most mundane of moments with the most intimate. In her own Daybook entry, Whang explains her editorial vision: "The only thing I enjoy more than my own self-absorption is the self-absorption of others!"
She and Ray, who live in Hampden, met online in a discussion group for 'zine and comics enthusiasts. "We're a '90s cliche," Ray says. In a way, Atomic Books is the intellectual consummation of their relationship. As they shape the bookstore's future, together they expand their awareness of an alternative universe, where foot fetishes and fascination with serial killers are deemed no more strange than Civil War reenactments and stamp collecting.
The couple, who tentatively plan to marry in the fall, take an unblushing approach to the shocking and the taboo. Ray, tall, a tad scruffy and goateed, and Whang, in a T-shirt, long skirt and flawlessly featured, seem to enjoy heated debates about art and culture and what to put on their shelves.
At Atomic Books, customers with "fringe sexual perversions," a taste for cultural anarchy and interests usually not covered in books because they are considered "too trivial or not universal," will find what they're looking for, Whang says. They won't find glossy paeans to mainstream existence.
Stocking the shelves
Five days before reopening, Ray and Whang stack the shelves with merchandise. Titles include "Monkey Vs. Robot," a deceptively simple comic book by James Kochalka, a Maryland Institute, College of Art graduate. There's "Death Scenes," a photographic collection of just that, and "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity, Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations," by Cintra Wilson.
Comics and 'zines galore also fill the clean, well-lighted bookstore, including those by graphic novelist Scott Mills and cartoonist Frank Cho, both from the Baltimore area.
Sundry literary offerings at Atomic Books may be familiar to a larger audience. "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about comic-book creators, is on the shelf. Those searching for counter-cultural history will find chestnuts from the old avant-garde, including Lenny Bruce and Jack Kerouac.
Outside, in front of the Royal Farms store, several men break up a fight between two angry women. Skateboard urchins grumble that Whang and Ray have usurped their grinding steps. A young woman knocks on the business owners' door and asks for a job.
Whang, Ray and their nascent business should feel right at home in this contradictory little corridor, where being on tilt is a natural state. They'll be happy to put you on tilt, too. Begin with a " 'zine starter pack." Then, claim a window seat at Cafe Hon, spend an hour or two reading, watch the world pass by, and ponder how alternative universes can collide in just this way.
Atomic Books, 1100 W. 36th St., is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 410-662-4444; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.