New Era closes shop

May 05, 1994

Baltimore radicalism has lost one of its cornerstones: New Era Bookstore in the 400 block Park Avenue has gone out of business.

Since its opening three decades ago, New Era, which was closely linked to the U.S. Communist Party, was the city's main purveyor of Marxist literature. Publications from the Soviet Union, China and Cuba could be found there as could an impressive array of fringe newspapers from the United States. The store also had one of the best selections of black-related books and magazines in the city.

New Era had its glory days in the turbulent 1960s, when the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War turned it into a controversial center of radical agitation. It was repeatedly picketed by the Knights of Ku Klux Klan and the Fighting American Nationalists, who carried such signs as "New Era Sells Viet Cong Propaganda," "Red Garbage Sold Here" and "Press Protects Reds."

In the winter of 1967, those protests assumed a violent character. The store's windows were stoned, a five-gallon can of gasoline was ignited and thrown inside. (An unidentified passer-by smothered the flames with a rain coat). The store lost its lease and its insurance coverage.

There was sufficient outcry in liberal circles to prompt an intervention by then-Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin. New Era won a reprieve.

During its heyday, New Era was a place of discovery. The main floor featured political literature, alternative newspapers and similar offerings. It was a place of a never-ending proselytizing.

The basement, on the other hand, was a seldom-visited depository of yellowing books not only in English but also in Russian, German, Yiddish, Hungarian and Finnish. Many were political treatises; many others were priceless copies of jubilee books or immigrant journals.

Since New Era was just a few steps away from another important book store of that era, Abe Sherman's at Mulberry Street and Park Avenue, many regulars would drop by both.

New Era gradually lost its dynamism after its founder, Robert W. Lee, died. The store also never recovered from the shock of Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his attempts to to reform Soviet communism, a cause which many New Era supporters found heretical.

It is doubtful that New Era ever converted anyone. But the store was one of those oddities that gives a city its character. If you disagreed with arguments inside, you could always storm out.

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