The Waverly shop is as much a state of mind as it is a bookstore. But it's not like anything you'll find at the mall

COMPLETELY NORMAL'S

August 04, 1998|By ROSEMARY HUTZLER | ROSEMARY HUTZLER,SUN STAFF

Only in the context of its neighborhood can the store's name be read without irony.

The corner at 31st Street and Greenmount Avenue, where Charles Village gets squeamish and Waverly takes over, is home to a puzzling assortment of businesses, including the city's dusty Communist Party headquarters ("No loitering within 100 feet"), a vegetarian tearoom and "history exchange" open two days a week by appointment, the furniture workers' union, a Baptist church and a no-name bar.

Like so many rabbit holes waiting for their respective Alices, each hints at a different, unguessable subculture. Normal's Used Books and Records stands alone on the south side of 31st Street, observing the cultural circus at its doorstep with wry equanimity. This rabbit hole goes deeper than most.

The store's window dressing offers fair warning of the free-associative senses of humor that dwell within: A Boumi fez, an Amway plaque, a kewpie doll head, a shark in formaldehyde, a bottle of "Elvis" cologne, a board game called Class Struggle, several frightening clowns, a Buddha, a gargoyle and a sign reading "use on conscious persons only" constitute an elaborate joke on the notion of the norm.

The store was founded in 1990 by nine friends who decided they had had enough of the schism between their work and their Work. They were writers, artists and musicians working in laterally mobile jobs -- bicycle repair, carpentry, graphic design, foam-product quality control.

Each contributed $500 and the better part of his or her library, and Normal's was born as a used-clothing, bicycle-repair, books-and-music shop. Clothes and bikes went out early, and attrition has claimed half of the original collective, but eight years and several moves later the store is going strong enough to pay its members "almost adult wages," according Rupert Wondolowski, 37, one of the four remaining owners.

Today hardback editions of Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky and a Sinatra biography share space in the window with more self-reflexive titles: "Bedlam: the Extraordinary Story of a Young Frenchman Who Chose to Share a Life of Strange Brutality and Horrible Madness with Twenty-Nine Criminally Insane Men," "Hallucinating Foucault," "The Cosmic Puppets: An American Town Run by Galactic Invaders" and "We Neurotics."

You know as you cross the store's threshold that Normal's is not, exactly. What you might not realize until you've been back several times is that you have just walked through a main entrance to underground Baltimore.

Co-owner John Berndt, 30, describes the store's sensibility as one of "open-ended non-conformist anti-reductionism." In other words, says Wondolowski, "Norms are relative and relatives are seldom normal."

Something's going on

There are several reasons why it might take a while for your sense that something is going on around here to gel into an understanding of how much, and what. For one thing, you'll get caught up in the books. The place is the Shangri-la of bookstores. Normal's stock of books and music is broad, deep, thoughtfully organized, well-preserved and inexpensive (books are generally priced at half their cover price). Espresso is not served, but you can bring your own if you like, and browse in an atmosphere of permissive seclusion.

"It's a genuine Baltimore treasure," says Brian Simpson, 33, a local writer who frequents Normal's poetry section. "I go there first before resorting to the exorbitant prices" at larger area bookstores.

"We'll keep anything in the store that is esoteric enough so that it may take five years for the right person to walk in the door," says co-owner Alfred Merchlinsky, 37, who also works as a projectionist at the Charles Theatre. "We try not to keep five copies of 'Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution' on the shelves."

To call the staff "knowledgeable" about books and music would be a subtle form of insult -- they are what they eat, sleep and breathe. But they won't offer opinions unless invited; this is Baltimore, after all, not Berkeley.

No one will talk you up about "what he really wants to do," since they're already doing it. Normal's is a land of many talents and multi-hyphenated careers, but the entire staff observes a strict taboo on self-promotion.

The owners

All four owners -- Berndt, Wondolowski, Merchlinsky and Walter Novash, 35 -- and Courtney McCullough, 38, their one full-time employee, are musicians who play or have played in local bands, including Little Gruntpack, THUS, the Lockhorns, Diana Froley 3, and the Suffering Bastards.

But that's not the half of it. If the five of them were lumped into one, that person would be a "singer, songwriter, painter, poet, writer, editor, projectionist, engineer, musician, computer whiz, carpenter, emcee, bicycle repairman and bookseller." Follow the hyphens to connect the dots: The completed picture reveals an artistic community of the sort you don't usually hear about until much later, when its members are already famous.

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