Philosophy, beer and Dantini's magic

Baltimore Glimpses

November 10, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

IF you hang around the Mt. Vernon area long enough, you'l see groups on walking tours, getting a glimpse of the monuments, museums and other buildings that help give this part of the city a special character.

Included: the Walters, the soaring (and now refurbished) Washington Monument, the many mansions on and near Mt. Vernon Square, the Peabody Library.

But alas, the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube, though it's still there on the east side of the 900 block of North Charles Street, no longer rates a tour guide's mention.

How quickly they forget!

For more than half a century, from the 1920s through most of the 1980s, the Peabody Book Shop was an "in" place for a colorful mix of people comfortable in its contrived ambience. It was a dimly lighted, smoky place overflowing with dusty old books. One sat by the downstairs fireplace on cold winter nights and solved the problems of the world. In their day, H.L. Mencken and Gerald Johnson were there. Hopkins professors, Peabody and Maryland Institute students, reporters and would-be Scott Fitzgeralds were crowded in with the Valley set, in town to do some slumming, to see real life.

Then there was "Dantini the Magnificent," Vincent Cierkes in real life, a violinist and prestidigitator who performed in tux and sneakers and made ladies' scarves disappear (temporarily, of course). Cierkes died in 1979, about the time the book store's fortunes began to decline.

The Peabody Book Shop was established in 1923 by Siegfried Weisberger, a self-educated Austrian bibliophile. He had been a cook, a salesman, a butcher, a clerk, a seaman -- but along the way he got to love books. Legend holds that he had been rejected by the University of California and had given up hope of ever being accepted by a college. So with only six years of formal schooling, he set up his own university -- the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube.

Students who had made it into universities flocked to Weisberger's university-in-the-cellar. Growing up in Baltimore, or at least attending college here, one came to the point at which one explored the life of the mind. What better place for such exploration than a small table (into which many carved their initials) down in Weisberger's cellar stube, with one's hand around a glass of beer?

In 1957 Weisberger decided to retire and sold the Peabody to Baltimore advertising executive Maurice Azrael, who promised with the best of intentions to carry on in the Weisberger tradition. He was not able to keep his promise for long. In the early 1960s the place was sold to Rose Boyajian Smith. She died, and in 1988 the Peabody, after more than 50 years, closed.

Which is where Richard Donkervoet and the 913 Limited Partnership come into the picture. The partnership was formed by the architectural firm of Cochran, Stephenson & Donkervoet, which occupies the nearby property at 901 North Charles St. and has plans to expand and to build underground parking beneath the Peabody. Fearing that the building could not survive the construction, in 1989 the partnership bought it and took responsibility for it.

Mr. Donkervoet is the perfect person to watch over the old book store's final days. As a young man in the Army he spent many a lighthearted hour in the place. Years later, he walks through it again.

"The place is still a musty cellar, still crowded to the rafters, smelling of old books," he says.

Mr. Siegfried, wherever he is, would like that.

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