Where (book) lovers settle in between the covers

CITY DIARY

March 22, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez

WHO DO you love?

Ralph Ellison?

Kate "Please Wake Me" Chopin?

Or that dirty bird genius, Philip Roth?

There is a man running around Baltimore who wants to bring you closer to the storytellers who make your blood sing.

But Clifford Panken is so busy schlepping books from one end of the city to the other -- out of people's basements and into his three used bookstores -- that he doesn't have time to organize love-ins between readers and the stories they crave.

Still, he wants to.

"I wanted a meeting place for people interested in books; that's why I named the business Rendezvous Books," says Panken, a 40-year-old South Baltimore resident who quit a government job in Washington to sell books in Mobtown. "Maybe a `Dorothy Parker Night,' where you bring in a local expert and charge people a couple bucks at the door. The next week we do somebody else and use the money to start a scholarship for young writers in Baltimore."

Panken, who holds a degree in economics, puts in seven days a week "buying books, doing paperwork and looking for cheap wood for shelves" and doesn't have time to read much less play match-maker for literary-minded Baltimoreans.

He didn't even know that Bukowski was dead, only that his books sell.

But if you have the gumption to get a scene started -- even if it's a night devoted to UFO books, which fly off the shelves -- Panken would like you to introduce yourself.

Of his 4-year-old business, he says: "I'm working like a dog. Maybe somebody can help me."

The best rendering of a used bookshop, whether in life or in art, I found in a novel by Cynthia Ozick called "The Messiah of Stockholm."

"The mullioned door [and] skimpy vestibule -- the narrow back room, a sort of corridor behind a fence of books -- wares in nearly any language [from] the newest Americans [to] the oldest Russians -- the shop window crowded with all of the alphabets -- that funny lamp, the shade a crystal daffodil -- a teakettle."

Here, on the other side of a window with BOKHANDLARE lettered across it in gold, the proprietress serves vodka to privileged patrons in a back room, much the way Abe Sherman would take anointed customers downstairs for a sip of brandy at his long-vanished book store on Park Avenue.

The shop owner sips her tea and tells her customer: "You think you're the only one with a story?"

Be it Stockholm or Swampoodle, this is the place you search for all your life.

This is not what you encounter at Rendezvous Books off the corner of Calvert and Baltimore streets, some 1,800 square feet of an old bank lobby where Panken envisions a literary salon amid the 15,000 volumes.

The Calvert Street store sits behind scarred glass that has been repeatedly broken during break-ins and patched with plywood. The shelves are made of cheap, unvarnished pine. And though Danielle Steele sells better than Daniel Defoe, I found a cheap copy of "A Guide for the Perplexed" by Maimonides.

Most of the customers come from nearby office buildings on their lunch hour or dash in before catching the bus.

A 23-year-old guitar player named Steven Menzer manages the store for $6 an hour. If there is vodka behind the counter, he's yet to share it.

"It looks like we're on the verge of going out of business, but that's not so," says Menzer. "We just got in a great shipment of nearly new cookbooks, and just the other day a guy came in named Darryl Croxton who does a one-man Shakespeare show and he bought a lot of books."

Panken has a two-year lease at 6 N. Calvert St. with a five-year option. Though his per-square-foot rent is about the cost of a medium pepperoni pizza, the planned resurgence of downtown would likely price Rendezvous out of the market.

Declining neighborhoods, it seems, are fertile soil for used bookstores.

"It's a business with very tight margins," says Panken. "The aesthetics simply drift."

The most fun I ever had with used books, besides reading them or using a slim tome to bring a crooked sofa into plumb, was Halloween in 1995.

Waiting to go to a Fleshtones concert in Annapolis, I sat in my own skimpy vestibule and greeted trick-or-treaters with battered paperbacks from the John Mason Rudolph collection I had recently inherited.

Shelly's "Frankenstein," Stoker's "Dracula," Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera," and whatever creepiness crawled between soft covers went right out the door, hitting the bottom of goody sacks with a thud.

Although the kids of Highlandtown were not amused -- "A book?" they cried, "Mom, that man gave me A BOOK!" -- the Rendezvous chain has enough paperbacks to fill 10,000 Easter baskets next month.

As the spring chicks say: "Cheap! Cheap!"

Today's writer

Rafael Alvarez is an author and reporter for The Sun. His e-mail address is rafaelalvarez@sevarez.com.

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