Turning one of life's pages, he finds himself in books

February 29, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

A man moves beyond the middle chapters of his life and finds himself selling used books on Pratt Street.

In the old Hagel's Bakery at the corner of Pratt and South Ann streets, down the road from the long Oriental shadow of the Patterson Park pagoda, Rich Bricher offers the public romance, mystery and fantasy.

Every once in a while, between sales of Harlequin romances, UFO investigations and biographies of Elizabeth Taylor, Mr. Bricher will sell a copy of "Moby Dick" or "The Confessions of Saint Augustine" from a small shelf in the back.

And when area residents suggest that if he really wants to earn some big paper he ought to turn the joint into a video store or sell magazines fat with pictures of naked women, Mr. Bricher smiles politely and goes back to alphabetizing his inventory.

This, says the 53-year-old, this little neighborhood book store, "is what I've wanted to do for a long time."

A native Minnesotan who cashed in an early retirement from the federal government, Mr. Bricher visited Baltimore often while working as a juvenile counselor in Washington. And on trips to Little Italy and the Inner Harbor, he ventured deep into East Baltimore and found it just cheap and peculiar enough to take a chance on his dream.

"I'm fascinated by the incredible mix of this area; it's like a marble cake," he says, sitting in the front window of the store, political campaign posters for the likes of Jimmy Carter, Eugene McCarthy and Nelson Rockefeller tacked to the walls.

"Financially, racially, blue-collar, professional, doctors and people on welfare -- all living next door to each other. I've even met a male prostitute early one morning since I've been open, and that's something I'd never met before."

For about a month now, Mr. Bricher has been open Saturday mornings, the best he can do with a vendor's license. Between now and April, he hopes to make enough money to keep the store open all week long.

His rent for the old bakery with the tin ceiling painted a buttery yellow and the egg shell-colored walls is low, $50 a week, and he says a couple hundred dollars' profit a month will allow him to stay.

That's no small feat when you're selling used paperbacks and old disco records two for a buck.

"Today I did $15 so far. It'll be a big deal to break even," he said on a recent Saturday, picking up $3 from a man who bought three books and two record albums, including a re-issue of The Fugs' greatest hits.

A regular visitor, confidante and spinner of neighborhood history is Tony Sobus, who has lived on South Ann Street for all of his 62 years and remembers when the milkman used to pull up to Hagel's Bakery with a horse and wagon.

"Hagel's was here for years and years before they closed, and then it was a carpet store here and then a religious bookstore that never opened," Mr. Sobus said. "The guy just left the books in the boxes and ain't nobody seen him since.

"But Mr. B's gotta be open more. People come by during the week and look in and say, 'What, he's closed up already?' "

Mr. Bricher, who recently sold his flea market in Hughesville, said he can afford to nurse the book business because the mortgage on his little rowhouse facing the park is low, at least one-fifth of what he'd pay for a home in Prince George's County.

If people like 30-year-old Maria Coombs of Milliman Street keep showing up, he might be able to make it.

"I'm into the occult, I'm into fantasy, I'm into mythology; I suffer from stress, and jumping into a book like a world of fantasy is a good escape," she said, stacking up a half-dozen paperbacks on Saturday and eyeing a shelf packed with books on folk medicines.

"He's got a better selection than Goodwill and the price is only 10 cents difference," she said. "I used to read romance, but I got bored with the characters, you know -- girl meets boy and they live happily ever after.

"It's all fairy tales."

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