The Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube ends a long and colorful era in Baltimore's social and literary history.

CLOSING THE BOOK

October 06, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

If you stand in the rubble of the Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube and listen very, very hard to the first winds of autumn, you may hear echoes of a ragtime piano, or H. L. Mencken ordering another round, or even the slither of the cards as Dantini the Magician performs his magic act for the last time.

In a kind of exquisite irony, the demolition of the Charles Street landmark began on the first day of this year's Baltimore Book Festival. First to be razed was the Viennese Brauhaus Siegfried Weisberger had created in 1933 at the rear of his shop, making it probably the first bookstore in America with its own tap room, its own Bierstube.

By late last week, the front window had been punched out. The familiar sign with the Gothic letters -- "Peabody Book Shop" -- is gone. Books fallen from their shelves in moldering mounds smell of must and violated memories. Like a broken clock, a calendar from a Greek Orthodox church is stopped at May 1988, about the last time anybody took a real interest in running the place.

A Baltimore institution almost as revered as steamed crabs is being deconstructed by demolition, and for those who knew it, nostalgia rises with the dust from each splintered beam and scattered brick.

When he built the Stube, Siegfried Weisberger wanted to re-create a European cafe where people could drink a beer after browsing among his books. He pretty much succeeded.

Weisberger built a room with a high, beamed, pyramidal ceiling, hung with a ponderous wrought-iron chandelier made by one of his brothers. He put in plain wooden tables and chairs, and the Stube's first pictures, curios and busts, initially of Mendelssohn and Shakespeare.

There was a piano and a fireplace and the stuffed heads of a couple of dead beasts identified variously as elk or stags. The ambience of the "Siegfried Stube," as it was known while Weisberger owned it, hovered somewhere between a Black Forest inn and a Viennese cafe.

"I remember that on cold winter nights it was warm and cozy with a 'gemutlichkeit' atmosphere," says Ed Byer, a Federal Hill bon vivant of long standing. "When it snowed, people congregated there to have a glass and warm the cockles of their hearts. It was really fun and you didn't have to spend a lot of money."

The clientele

The Stube attracted college students and their professors, writers, artists and musicians from the nearby Peabody Conservatory, soldiers, sailors and Marines during World War II, spooks and spooks-in-training at the Army's intelligence school at Fort Holabird, a wayward judge or two and a couple of generations of journalists.

Many Baltimoreans had their first beer there, or went there on their first grown-up date, carved the proof of their true love into the table top and came back the next week to do it all over again with a new date.

The late Jerome Melvin Edelstein, a distinguished bibliographer, literary scholar, author and librarian, fondly recalled his first drink at the Peabody in a letter to the Enoch Pratt Library on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.

Edelstein haunted the Washington Boulevard branch of the Pratt when he was growing up in the Baltimore of the 1930s. The librarian took him to the Peabody even though he was considerably under age, a malfeasance that, of course, could not happen today.

"We sat in a corner at one of the wooden tables and when a waiter asked what we would have, Mrs. M spoke up and said we would all have beer. What joy! My first 'drink' in public!"

The Stube was always so dark and smoky you could bring a chimpanzee in and nobody would notice, unless the chimp offered an untoward literary opinion. Edelstein survived that illegal first drink to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from the Johns Hopkins University and a host of other institutions of the highest learning, and went on to become librarian of the National Gallery of Art, among other lofty attainments.

During the Weisberger era, you could find a considerable number of literary lights of various wattage at the well-carved tables. Mencken drank there, and probably F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gerald Johnson, Lou Azrael, Patrick Skene Catling, Travis Kidd and most every other writer who paused in Baltimore long enough to buy a brew or a book.

Weisberger was an Austrian seaman who had washed up in Baltimore and opened a bookstore with his brother Hugo on Centre Street in the early 1920s. They moved to 913 N. Charles about 1927. Hugo died young, while Siegfried acquired a tweedy, professorial look that was somewhat undercut by his Groucho Marx mustache.

He actually loved books, perhaps keeping as many for his own library as he sold. He leaned toward the medical tomes favored by his clients from the medical schools. He had a branch across the street from the Hopkins medical school.

He also had impossibly high standards. In a famous outburst, he thundered against "ponies," the Cliffs Notes of his era.

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