Baltimore's book festival comes of age in its third year On Books

October 04, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The Cat in the Hat seemed contented, at home, about 10 feet tall, looking south down Charles Street from his perch at last weekend's Baltimore Book Festival.

Saturday seemed to me a perfect day for it, in a perfect place. Sunday was a bit hotter, but still pleasant. The architectural and topographic crown jewel of Baltimore basked in the last blush of summer, with enough of a hint of autumn - in the early morning anyway - to make it pleasant. The food was good. There was lots and lots of local beer, and a quite adequate wine bar as well. All an improvement over such fairs - too often abstemious or bereft of hearty spirits.

It seemed much bigger than last year, and vastly larger than the year before that, its first. It was far more populous, and more self-confident.

Thus did the Baltimore Book Festival establish itself as a permanent fixture on its third birthday last weekend.

It is organized and operated by the Baltimore Office of Promotion, with the support and cooperation of far too many city departments and offices and private companies and individuals to begin to list here.

There were readings and book-signings by dozens of writers of every imaginable leaning and specialization, and including a substantial number of my colleagues from The Sun. Especially active and delightful were children's book authors, many of them as blithely improbable and entertaining as their works. There was, of course, a great deal of poetry and a legion or two of poets.

On Sunday afternoon, there was a three-hour open house at the Peabody, the glorious and intricate conservatory that, with the Walters Art Gallery, constitutes the cultural, historical heart of Mount Vernon.

It was a time, an event, for children. The painting of faces and assembling of small art works, crayons, figured generously. It was, in that sense, a tourist activity, which is fine - but one that concentrated at an unusually high level on children's joy.

It could be said it was also a food fair. Indeed, the lines of waiting customers were at the food and drink sellers, not book stalls. The biggest crowd draw was to cooking demonstrations, not book readings. But the point was to open up the city and the neighborhood - and minds. Conviviality counts.

The police and traffic patrols were marvelous, visible but not intrusive, ineffably polite and thoughtful.

The Washington Monument itself was open, to the great credit of the local authorities, and the ground-level exhibition of its origins and background was as captivating as ever.

Anyone who has not climbed the steps to the top of that monument - and who can safely manage doing so, which is no undaunting feat - has to do it. The top offers four majestic panoramas of Baltimore, the immediate neighborhood but also a sweep of the city, with just a suggestion of the harbor at the edge of the south and east vantages.

I counted 230 steps, on my way down. A sign in the lobby insists there are 228, but I will not quibble. (And at the top, not counted, are three more steps up to the north-panorama vantage point.) I don't believe I shall go back and recount.

There has been some wonderful restoration going on in Mount Vernon, with the huge program just beginning.

Being there made me feel how marvelous - and grand for Baltimore as a whole - it would be to have the area once again be livable and gracious. It should be celebratable and celebrated. On days such as last weekend's, Mount Vernon feels close to pulling itself up with the solidarity, cooperation and involvement that other surviving or recovering neighborhoods of the city already have achieved.

Next year, the festival will fill three days, Sept. 24, 25, 26 - expanded to include a celebration of the bicentennial of George Washington's death. Be there.

Finally, bookstores!

Baltimore too long has been bereft of a large encyclopedic book store or stores. There are delicious small and even tiny ones, highly specialized or homey. But for years now the City that Reads has had to flee to the suburbs to browse widely and buy.

This is about to change, dramatically.

A new, huge Barnes & Noble store will open for business this Tuesday at 5 p.m. It is a very impressive place, filling two stories of the central portion of the inner harbor's Power Plant building, flanked by the Hard Rock Cafe and ESPN's sports entertainment palace.

The B&N operators say there are 170,000 titles on the shelves, which is a massive inventory. The categories are well chosen and clearly marked. The space feels open and inviting. It is, of course, much like other modern massive book stores - coffee bars on both floors, adequate sitting room, a music-recording annex. The very large display of magazines and journals is especially welcome. I have never been in a city in which it is so hard to find and buy serious magazines.

It seems to me that the potential for success is clear - or should be. What proportion of the 13 million tourists who come to Baltimore annually are in book-buying moods remains to be seen.

And - better news yet - a second book "megastore," this one a new edition of the excellent local independent Bibelot company, is now working to open before the end of this year in the American Can complex in the Canton neighborhood. May the competition make both prosper!

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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