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One for the books
... or not. The Peabody Book Shop was 'a place where respectable people could come for a sandwich and a glass of beer.'
By Mary K. Zajac

“Come in,” the sign above the basement door at 913 N. Charles St. invited. “Visit our Famous Beer Stube serving Cocktails Ð Beer Ð Food.”

There’s no counting how many Baltimoreans descended the dingy stairwell into the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube to share a beer at the communal wooden tables, hear poetry read aloud, participate in sing-alongs or watch as the Great Dantini performed his magic tricks. But everyone who passed through, it seems, has a story to tell, and one rarely about books.

My father still talks about one evening when he saw film star Veronica Lake and another when crooner Rudy Vallee walked in (he was in town performing at one of Baltimore’s theaters). Cockeysville resident Morry Wexler (father of Style senior editor Laura Wexler) recalls glimpsing his future wife, Trudy Ricker, there for the first time (though they didn’t actually meet until later). This was in the 1960s, when the Peabody was in the hands of the formidable Rose Boyajjian Smith Pettus Hayes (the lady loved— or perhaps didn’t love— her husbands), who owned and ran the two-story brick storefront at 913 N. Charles from 1957 until she died in 1986.

“Rose Smith [as she was once known] was a tough lady,” Wexler remembers. “She could deal with people. If she wanted to she could have picked them up by the seat of the pants and thrown them out.”

A 1968 Baltimore magazine article describes Rose as “an amiable but hard-headed woman with Streisand-like features” who tried hard to maintain the Peabody’s original aura of conviviality, if not the book inventory. Wexler remembers bachelor nights with friends at the Peabody when the proprietress would usher pretty female patrons to the long community tables where he and his friends were drinking. It was that kind of chummy place.

Founded by Austrian immigrant Siegfried Weisberger and his brother Hugo, the Peabody started life as a bookshop around 1927. When Hugo Weisberger died in 1931, Siegfried, who with his circular framed glasses, bow ties and inky mustache bore a slight resemblance to Groucho Marx, maintained the business, keeping the bookshop stocked with the kind of inventory he thought was important: an esoteric collection of art books, literature (in French, German and English), music and medical texts. In 1933, he transformed the building’s garage into a beer cellar as “a place where respectable people could come for a sandwich and a glass of beer,” he recalled in a 1974 article in The Alternative magazine. “Beer and books go together like balls and bats,” he opined in another publication.

Over the years, Weisberger’s “respectable” clientele included medical students, Peabody students, out of town visitors, and most famously, H.L. Mencken, with whom Weisberger was known to share conversations and glasses of beer (it was also rumored that F. Scott Fitzgerald drank there once— but then he drank at a lot of places). There was food, including sausages made by Weisberger himself, and there was nearly always music, especially singing, led from the upright piano that sat snug against one of the paneled walls.

The Peabody flourished under Weisberger until 1954 when he decided to sell, discouraged by a fine incurred by serving an underage drinker and certain that the country was embracing Mencken’s notion of “Age of the Boob,” rejecting art and culture in favor of commercialism and mass culture. When the business was bought and reopened by Rose Hayes in 1957, beer took precedence over books, which became more motif than merchandise, and the stube itself became a cluttered caricature of its humble origins with ballet slippers hanging from the wrought-iron chandelier, and the stag’s head above the brick fireplace competing for attention with mounted animal horns, ceramic busts, figurines and framed pictures of waterfowl.

Throughout the later life of the beer stube, there was always entertainment of some sort— a folk singer with a guitar, a piano player, someone plucking a zither. Sometimes, a bar patron would start a song, and before long the whole room had joined in. Then there was the Great Dantini (He Knew Houdini), with his enormous beard and minimal talent for magic, who performed tricks with rings and with cards, and was the subject of a 1976 documentary, “Dantini the Magnificent.” Legend has it he died in his chair after performing his act in March 1979.

“It was a hidden gem,” recalls Cindy Chance, proprietor of Carol’s Western Wear, who was first taken to the Peabody by her parents in the 1960s. In the 1970s, she says, “it wasn’t like going to a nightclub or any other bar. It was different edgy, alternative… counter culture. It wasn’t mainstream for a young person.”

Baltimorean John McDaniel remembers the Peabody of the 1980s, when Rose’s son John sat by the door and drew moody portraits of customers, and a pianist who went by “El Duko” played standards like “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

The Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube closed when Rose died in 1986. I recall looking through the dirty plate glass windows years later and seeing stacks of books and ephemera covering nearly every surface, like someone walked out one night and never returned— which is, in essence, what happened. And according to Tom Spies, an architect with Cochran, Stephenson and Donkervoet, the firm whose principals were part of the 913 North Charles Limited Partnership , which last owned the building, dirty dishes and remnants of half-filled glasses were discovered on the bar five years after the building had been shuttered.

The 913 group intended to create an office building on the site of 925 N. Charles, Spies says, using 913 as a protective flank for the building. But the deal fell through and the structurally unsound Peabody Book Shop was condemned and razed by the city. The property is now a parking lot for the Maryland Club.

But it’s the camaraderie and quirky joie de vivre of the Peabody Book Shop that’s missed more than the actual structure itself, and in the years since its closure, nowhere else in Baltimore has come close to replicating it. A friend told me she recalled sitting in the beer stube in the ‘70s, singing Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” along with the rest of the Peabody’s patrons. It was an apt choice. “Once upon a time there was a tavern…”

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2009


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