In the industrial corridor one hits along the 95, I experienced an interlude—a bit of a fugue state, if you will. I kept passing in and out of urban sprawls with a film of half-attention clouding my days. But every now and then I would squeegee the surface a bit and have a breakthrough.
The first happened during a tarry in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore. Down the street from the coffee shops and mindfulness centers, you’ll come to Atomic Books. Known for their outrageous comic & graphic novel selection, it turns out they’ve got just about everything else too. I spent “a few minutes” with a smattering of small press poetry collections, took a few steps back and bumped into a table with various vegan cookbooks, then knocked over some of Baltimore’s finest local zines. I knew I should split before I wrecked the joint. Though I felt compelled to stay—partly by co-owner Rachel Whang’s tolerance of my klutz performance, but also the energy of a full spectrum of the publishing world. It’s a place where international appeal meet DIY. People visit Atomic from all over, but their main focus is being a neighborhood bookstore (and the official address where John Waters picks up all his fan mail). Shock value, but a little more endearing.
I was starting to feel guilty—alien even. For the first time, I was beginning to spend more time in the car than in bookstores. Baltimore got all of an afternoon, and by the time I got to Philadelphia …a whole slew of surprises awaited to complicate things. First of all, I was staying in Fishtown—surrounded by filming locations from the Rocky films. I’M TALKING ABOUT ROCKY! If you thought Spider Rico was a bum, you should’ve seen me living out my childhood underneath the train line on Front Street.
But then I went down to 12th & Pine to visit the LGBTQ bookstore of lore, Giovanni’s Room, and found just weeks prior they had closed forever. This was a major blow. I had been looking forward to a visit to the Room for quite some time and missed it by a matter of days. Owner Ed Hermance locked up the doors for the last time, but the culture surrounding the store—the country’s (and world’s) oldest and largest gay, lesbian, and feminist bookstore (B,T, & Q later on)—helped nurture understanding for all walks of life. Not only the oldest bookstore, but a nerve center for LGBTQ conversations in the infancy of the gay civil rights movement. It was there when the story we’re seeing unfold today, legislatively, began to be written. It was a controversial and singular part of the story. We may not see another addition to the conversation quite like Giovanni’s Room, but literary and queer communities everywhere will be engaged by its influence.Bummed, but not beat, I had time enough to visit one more spot. I was reanimated by the very-much-still-open Brickbat Books on Fabric Row. Owner Patrick Richardson Graham was a kindly host, enough so to perk up my sorrowful state. His beautifully shelved collection of new, used, and rare is well-known to Wave, and—in the land of CA Conrad—he had plenty of familiarity and fervor to reciprocate. Brickbat itself is a hotbed of action where readings, concerts, and general hijinx of South Philly are encased by cubed shelves of impeccable composition. It was another quicky and I knew I’d hopefully be returning to Philly soon, but at least I was leaving on a high note.Once again rushed, I needed to slow my roll for a minute. Perhaps even skip the foreboding and most obvious next stop along this vastly-developed landscape. New York is a beast to be considerately approached & traversed. I didn’t want to buy new insoles for that kind of work. Let’s take a little walkabout in New England instead..