A grand gentleman presided at the Peabody Book Shop

October 05, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

THE DEMOLITION contractors are now wrecking one of Baltimore's most celebrated literary addresses, 913 N. Charles St. While too young to have frequented the legendary Peabody Book Shop -- and its famous beer stube -- in the days when it was owned by Siegfried Weisberger, I did spend many an afternoon in his fine company.

I never knew the Baltimore institution he established in the days when this grand Austrian gentleman, said to have resembled character actor Jean Hersholt, presided over his coffee, beer and sandwich room set back deep in the narrow basement of a rather musty and confined book-crammed shop. The 1930s and '40s were the Peabody's heyday, when a young crowd regularly gathered for good beer, a little food and fine company.

Siegfried sold the store in 1954, about the time I can first recall him, his endearing wife, Rosamond, and their children, a son (Siegfried Jr.), known within the family as Punky, and an ever-devoted daughter, Theresa. There were also the two Weisberger sisters, Gisela (a fabulous baker known within the family as Auntie G) and Erma.

The Weisbergers were among my mother's closest friends. Our family photo album has snapshots taken outside their Falls Road home near Butler on lazy afternoons. Along with the Weisbergers, my mother was friendly with his sister-in-law, Bertha Hollander, and her brother, Dr. David Hollander.

The family friendships were tight, but Siegfried was somewhat imposing, especially to a 5-year-old. He seemed a tall, formal gentleman who read books all day and liked to quote from them. He wore brown suits, white shirts and a bow tie. With great authority, he assured me that Baltimore was at its absolute best in 1912, about the time he arrived here from Austria.

My mother instructed me to listen to everything he said. After all, how many people were pallbearers at H.L. Mencken's funeral? Siegfried was.

When I was in my teens, the two families assembled for an afternoon's fall racing at Pimlico. The Weisbergers cut through my social apprehension in one second by telling me what a neat trick my father had pulled off in securing a good table on the porch of the old clubhouse.

Siegfried and I soon started discussing some point of history. I didn't think much about it, but a few days later the postman brought an enormous package. The thoughtful Rosamond had been listening to the conversation and found a cache of 1940s newspapers, gaudy Hearst sheets with glaring headlines that a 14-year-old would treasure. I still have my brittle Weisberger papers.

On another occasion, my mother was having lunch at Hutzler's tea room with Rosamond. She complimented Rosamond on her knitting. A few days later, a fine handmade sweater arrived at our house.

The Weisbergers gave up their Falls Road place and moved to an 1815 farmhouse on a little ridge in New Windsor in Carroll County. They named it the Sieg-Rosa Farm.

One spring day in 1963, my father drove his Rambler station wagon up the Weisberger's driveway. Out popped my whole family. The house was a collector's paradise -- bits and pieces of history from cellar to attic.

The maps and prints of old Baltimore made a Peale Museum exhibition seem dull. I thought there were more books than in the Peabody Library. The varied antiques rivaled Howard Street. It was displayed in a pleasant jumble, a mix of collecting that must have characterized his era at the Peabody shop on Charles Street.

Herr Weisberger lived to a ripe old age, long after Rosamond's death in 1968. Sadly, he didn't get complete peace in Carroll County. Vandals set fire to his beloved Sieg-Rosa farmhouse in 1974. He then moved in with his daughter, Theresa, in her Cambridge, Mass., home.

One March day in 1984 my kitchen telephone ran. It was Theresa informing me that her father had died. She asked if I could have obituaries placed in the Baltimore papers (Not a problem. How many living H.L. Mencken pallbearers were around?) as well as the Boston Globe, New York Times and Washington Post. For a while I doubted that these papers would be interested in the life of a Baltimore book-shop owner.

I was wrong. Siegfried's accomplishments were given high celebrity treatment, with lengthy accounts of his career as a Baltimore bookman appearing in the next few days.

When the demolition contractor started wrecking the building at 913 N. Charles St. a few days ago, the first part to be torn down was the little room in the back, a kind of converted garage toward Lovegrove Alley. It was ironic. The first thing to go was Siegfried's bier stube, the very heart of the delightful institution.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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