Bookstore offers hard-to-find reads

Clayton & Co. also boasts an upscale coffee shop

Scene: Clubs/Bars/Nightlife

October 21, 2004|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Entering the red door of Clayton & Co. downtown is like visiting a friend's home where the bookshelves are filled with fascinating tomes and the atmosphere is filled with hospitality.

This two-story bookstore and cafe feels both cerebral and comfortable. At the heart of Clayton Fine Books are some 35,000 volumes - many of them rare and hard-to-find. And there is ample space to curl up and enjoy them in the sweeping 5,000-square-foot space.

On the first floor, small tables and burgundy couches with artsy pillows beckon. Picture windows provide a view of North Charles Street. The in-house coffee bar, Dark Sky Cafe, has stools where one can sit and enjoy all types of goodies.

The second floor brims with more books. The shop's literary treasures include autographed works by playwright Arthur Miller, H.L. Mencken and novelist Sinclair Lewis, to name a few.

While the emphasis is on 20th-century literature in English, the trove also includes art history, performing arts and fine arts books, plus historical newspapers and magazines.

Prices range from a $2 children's book to nearly $10,000 for a signed copy of the Joseph Heller classic, Catch-22. Inventory is valued around $2 million, with some items kept in locked display cases.

The literary cache and ambiance make Clayton & Co. a distinctive place to spend a leisurely fall afternoon enthralled by a good read. One might deem this a literary sanctuary both for devoted bibliophiles and those who stop in for note cards or The New York Times.

Indeed, the trio behind the establishment (there are also three additional employees) envisioned just such a serene, genial environment when they opened at the end of April.

"My husband and I spent some time in England staying at B&B's, and we fell in love with the intimate bookstores we saw there. Some had attached cafes," says Donna Northouse, who co-owns Clayton Fine Books with husband, Cameron. "We wanted to create a place to hang out, something that book lovers would find comfortable. Our love of literature is really what prompted it."

The Northouses are retired teachers with doctorates in English literature and nearly three decades of experience buying and selling rare books. Previously, they operated their book business exclusively through catalogs, the Internet and book shows.

But soon after the couple relocated from Dallas to Baltimore almost four years ago, they started talking about opening a retail store. A mutual friend introduced them to Joe Ptak, a Gardenville native and longtime caterer/deli and restaurant proprietor, who owns and manages the cafe.

Together, the trio located what was then a vacant space at 317 N. Charles St., (formerly the home of Downs Stationers, now at the Gallery) and used personal savings to launch the business.

The bookstore is named for the Northouses' adult son, Clayton. Ptak is a bit more mysterious about why he calls his operation Dark Sky Cafe but laughingly says it has to do with the coffee.

"This is not a run-of-the-mill bookstore or cafe," he says proudly of his recently expanded 1,200-square-foot coffee shop, which boasts more than a dozen premium coffees and teas, assorted baked goods like scones and peach cheese crumb cake, as well as quiche, salads and made-to-order sandwiches.

"We're upscale," says Ptak, who has spent some 23 years in the food service industry and directs much of what happens in the kitchen.

"We have coffees from all over the world, small local bakeries to give that homemade taste, and we make Italian fountain sodas in a variety of flavors. We also have all-natural soft drinks."

In addition to the thousands of books and culinary offerings, Clayton & Co. also plays host to a variety of series and events.

These include "Food for Thought," an informal lunch dialogue with Center Stage company members; "Coffee and Conversation," which features local and national authors discussing and signing their books; and poetry events (the works of Edgar Allan Poe are part of the current schedule).

The activities are in keeping with the shop's location in the city's cultural and historic district.

"We're near the main branch of the Enoch Pratt library and such cultural institutions as the Walters, the Peabody and the Baltimore School for the Arts. Plus we're in the heart of the business district," says Cameron Northouse.

"We thought Charles Street, because of its location and foot traffic, would be ideal for this type of bookstore."

Clayton & Co. is at 317 N. Charles St. and is open seven days a week. For store hours or details about events, call the cafe at 410-752-6802 or the bookstore at 410-752- 6800.

For more club events, see Page 29.

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