Need a change of page? Offbeat bookstores for book nerds in Baltimore

Look beyond Barnes and Noble for Baltimore's local flavor. Each offbeat bookstore in Baltimore has its individual style. Every one offers its special kind of insane find for Charm City's intrepid travelers.

Normal's Books and Records

"Normal's is not," says fellow book nerd, Don Clark.

Laura Melamed

Normal's was founded in 1990 by nine people who didn't want a boss. Collectively, they got the store going on a threadbare budget. Run by the owners who were also talented writers, musicians and artists, the store won Best of Baltimore several times in Baltimore's City Paper, an alternative local news source.

"A cultural institution," according to City Paper, Normal's still has a '90s vibe.

"We have a penchant for the obscure and hard to find," says Normal's website and I have to agree.

"From the obscure to the indispensable," adds Normal's co-owner, Rupert Wondolowski.

Normal's books are secondhand gems with some new titles sprinkled in. Small press zines are all recently birthed, many Baltimore born.

Not just for books and records anymore, Normal's is also a musical venue. Behind an ordinary looking door lies Normal's Red Room, now painted blue. Hosting a variety of musicians with diverse and unique sounds, the Red Room matches the rest of Normal's in its mysterious obscurity and unusual finds.

The service at Normal's is extraordinary because Wondolowski is almost always there---and loves books and records above and beyond the norm.

Atomic Books

"Literary finds for mutated minds" is the store slogan.

Atomic Books is the only bookstore in town where I've found a bar along with books. That's right, somewhere special to drink and discuss literature, world news and other insanity.

A crazy amount of art books in seven separate categories are part of the store's merchandise madness. Design, graffiti and outsider art are included and lauded.

Art toys abound at Atomic Books, along with books, comics and zines. The store sells an '80s style Andy Warhol vinyl collector doll and a plush Andy Warhol banana, to name just a couple of my favorites.

Most books at the store are new and shiny, but I've always found a cart of gently and voraciously read old standbys parked inside or just out front.

Red Emma's

A radical bookstore, coffeehouse, vegetarian restaurant and public event space, Red Emma's is someplace vegans, free thinkers and socially conscious people gather. The store is LGBT friendly.

Red Emma's is also environmentally friendly, serving organic food and coffee whenever possible. There's even a water filling station for reusable water bottles.

The food rocks. The vegan Bành Mí salad is so amazing I've been eating it for five years. I usually order a seasonal soup along side it for adventure and an extra helping of happiness.

The coffee is hot! It's also ethically traded and often organic. Lattes-to-stay come with a steamed milk art heart, always very well done.

There's even beer. A New Belgium Black Lager can be tasty with nachos or a vegan bacon cheeseburger.

There's a ton of tables. Huge windows overlook the street. Some people stay for hours, although many enjoy the view on their laptops. With free wi-fi and great food it can be hard to leave.

Dessert is a difficult choice. When in doubt, I grab a few pieces of organic, fair trade dark chocolate.

I'm never bored waiting for food at Red Emma's, because of course, there are books. Red Emma's specializes in publications hard to find in mainstream stores. There are a wide range of categories. I like browsing in the science fiction section. I also check to see if there are new bicycling books. The feminist section is always full of empowering fun.

Red Emma's, named after revolutionary Emma Goldman, is collectively owned and operated. The project started in 2004 as a volunteer-run anarchist collective bookstore and has expanded into so much more.

Red Emma's is accessible by The Maryland Avenue Cycle Track, a protected bicycle lane with flexible posts between the bike lane and traffic, most of the way down. The lane runs north and south, connecting Red Emma's to other local shops, restaurants and Baltimore's Inner Harbor area. Red Emma's also has a healthy supply of bicycle parking out front. How rad is that?

Laura Melamed has lived in Baltimore for twenty-five years, writing, hiking and bicycling around the city. She's had articles published in the about Baltimore vegan culture as well as articles in the UB Post about libraries, sustainability and bicycling.