As I carried my bags up endless flights of stairs, I passed stacked bookshelves on every landing of the house I was moving into. I had never been to Baltimore before, and I was soon starting my first job in a newsroom. I didn’t know anybody, but once I dropped my bags and began searching the bookshelf I found plenty of familiar titles to stack beside my chair.
Opening one of the wrinkled books, I realized how easy it can be to find things that feel like home wherever you are. As someone who used to get in trouble for reading through classes, I set off in search of bookstores that would make Baltimore feel like home.
In no particular order, because they were all too good to be last, here are my favorites.
Only a couple of short blocks from the Inner Harbor, on Aliceanna Street, you’ll find an open door leading to a bright, colorful bookstore stocked with everything from baby books to political theory. “I created my dream home library,” said Julia Fleischaker, the founder and owner of Greedy Reads, which also has a location in Remington. With well-lit chairs right by the windows and faded whitewood floors, the store feels a little like if you dedicated your entire house to bookshelves, and it made me want to do just that.
Walking past Atomic Books on Falls Road, the first things you notice are the bright red shelves in the windows. After that, you can’t help but look at the books on display. Inside, you find yourself surrounded by board games, coloring books, collectibles, posters and basically any intellectual property you could imagine. The book collection ranges from a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to X-Men comic books, and it’s amazing.
There isn’t a single bookshelf in the store that isn’t topped by dinosaur toys, action figures or just more books. Walking to the back of the store, you’ll discover a stocked bar with drinks, snacks, sofas and even an arcade machine. If you want your book club to geek out every week, this is for you.
The Book Escape
I cannot emphasize enough how welcoming The Book Escape’s storefront on South Charles Street was the day I found it. A beautiful shade of blue with white trim and wide windows, it promises a peaceful bookstore, a chance to get lost among shelves. The inside lives up to the promise, offering narrow hallways with books piled everywhere they’ll fit. Talk to the owner and he’ll proudly tell you all the art on the walls was made by his wife.
As you work your way through the store, making sure not to trip on the piles of books underfoot, you’ll gradually realize the only sounds you hear are your own. Get to the very back of the store and you can find a bizarre room, wallpapered with scenes of islands and mermaids and strung with fairy lights. For all I know there are more secret rooms hidden among The Book Escape’s quiet shelves, waiting for you to find them.
Royal Books does not sell gas, and it surprisingly doesn’t sell books about aristocracy either. Royal is the owner’s middle name, and the store on West 25th Street is a historical treasure trove of books, prints and scripts. Officially, it’s an antiquarian bookstore, selling rare and antique paper painstakingly assembled and catalogued over 20 years. Here, quality over quantity reigns supreme. Books are given room to stand out on the shelves. The wood-paneled walls are covered in antique original prints, and you get a sense that what you can see on the shelves offers only a hint of the full collection.
Go down into the basement and you’ll see evidence of this, as cabinets and cardboard boxes overflow with old movie scripts and other paper that the store has archived over the years. Most of Royal Books’ business is done through mail order, but it welcomes the occasional store visitor with open arms.
Protean Books & Records
All of these bookstores blew me away with their collections and ambience, but I have to say Protean Books & Records on Leadenhall Street won my heart. As volunteer Steve Estes told me, “It’s the most fun store in Baltimore.” Games, books and records spill out from the shelves while X-wings and pterodactyls hang from the ceilings, and of course the walls are plastered with old posters. Venture far enough through the different rooms lit by string lights and you might find a suit of armor or a Darth Vader mannequin.
Music from all eras plays constantly through the store, and there are arguably more records stashed throughout the place than there are books. With a stage in one of the back rooms, Protean is a place where people who would otherwise never meet can bond over the things they find on the shelves. Sadly, though, the store has to move from this building within the next couple of years, so explore it while you can.
As a matter of fact, go explore all of these bookstores if you haven’t already. They’re worth it and a reminder that there’s no experience like perusing the shelves of your local bookstore.
Dylan Thiessen, a student at the University of North Carolina, worked as a photo intern at The Baltimore Banner this summer.