A mother's weekly singalongs at the Red Canoe make the bookstore a hip hangout for parents of young kids

Mom is rocking the boat

Maryland Journal


Alina Watkins can tell that her audience is restless. She pulls out her songbook of Grateful Dead and Beatles standards and strums her guitar. And then, grinning from ear to ear, she sings the songs that they have all come to hear.

"Baby Beluga, Baby Beluga," Watkins trills. "Sing your little song. Sing for all your friends, we like to hear you."

And with that, the toddlers and babies shake their bells, their sippy cups full of Cheerios, their parents' keys and whatever other noisemakers are handy. Their moms - and a couple of dads - tap their feet, or bounce their children in their lap, or sing along in voices usually reserved for the shower.

By the time Watkins tears into Cat Stevens' "Moon Shadow," more than 30 parents and toddlers have packed into the upstairs nook of the Red Canoe, the Lauraville children's bookstore and coffeehouse that began hosting Watkins' Wednesday morning singalongs shortly after it opened last year.

While the toddlers bang and twirl, the moms take over the couch or spread out on the floor. They trade stories about natural births, swap tips about where to find organic cereal and discuss the difficulty of weaning. One multitasking mother breast-feeds her toddler while talking on her cell phone.

Meanwhile, Watkins is trying to focus on her chords as her two daughters, 6-year-old Sunflower and 4-year-old Willow, are hanging on her.

It's hot, crowded and noisy - and it's almost naptime. But the young audience doesn't seem to care. They are focused on the singer with the atomic-pink hair and the multitude of tattoos who looks a little like Ani DiFranco and sounds a lot like Joni Mitchell.

"She's really so fantastic," said Cassandra Lidin-Lamon, who lives in Original Northwood and comes regularly to the weekly singalongs with her 7-month-old son, Bodhi.

Second-time visitor Ursula Suskin of Rodgers Forge agreed. "We used to live in Boston. When I come here, I feel like I'm in Harvard Square again."

The story of how a fledgling children's bookstore in Northeast Baltimore became a hip hangout for parents from all over the region starts with the chance meeting between Watkins and Red Canoe owner Nicole Ufferfilge-Selhorst.

One year ago, Watkins brought Sunflower and Willow to a Wednesday story time at the bookstore. The Mount Washington mom had cut her musical teeth playing clubs with a Grateful Dead cover band and some blues groups before she had children; she was hoping to build a career in children's music so she could bring them along.

Watkins asked whether she could bring in her guitar for the next story time, and Ufferfilge-Selhorst agreed.

Immediately, Watkins was a hit. Her one-woman band, which she calls Light Chaser, has been coming back ever since.

"It's sort of been like twinzies, walking up the hill, hand in hand," Ufferfilge-Selhorst said of the store's and Watkins' growing popularity. "It's such a thrill for me to think somebody with her talent has a bright future, and this is a place for her to nurture it."

Before long, Wednesday became the store's busiest day. After the free music, the moms lingered to buy lattes and muffins - made by Ufferfilge-Selhorst's steelworker husband, Peter Selhorst - while their toddlers played red light, green light in the courtyard.

Karen McGinley heard about the singalong from a friend and first came two months after her daughter was born because she wanted to get out of the house. Now McGinley makes the 40-minute drive from Catonsville every week with 5-month-old Ellie.

"At first, it was definitely mostly for me. But now that she's more alert and engaged, I think she's hearing familiar songs and watching other children react," McGinley said. "I wish there was something on the west side of the city. I have visions of the Blue Canoe - but I need someone else to open it for me, and then I would be a regular customer."

As word got out that the Red Canoe's cafe was the sort of place where no one would look askance if toddlers threw raisins and moms breast-fed, some of the Wednesday regulars started coming other days to eat lunch or buy books.

Watkins' music career took off, too, as offers came in for paying gigs at birthday parties and summer camp singalongs. Recently, she recorded a compact disc of her favorites, called Live at the Red Canoe.

The music is different every week, but there are a few constants: "The Wheels on the Bus," "Bingo" and "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes." For the parents, there's the Beatles' "Octopus's Garden" and the Grateful Dead's "Ripple." And few songs more quickly invoke campfire memories than "Moon Shadow," which also happens to be Sunflower's favorite.

"I try to stick in the folk and children's realm. I don't want to get too psychedelic on them," Watkins said. It's not the same music she played at the clubs in Fells Point and Federal Hill when she was 19, and it's definitely not the same crowd. But to the 27-year-old mother, that's a good thing.

"I feel like the kids are so much more appreciative and so much more fun. To see them smile, it just fills my heart," Watkins said. "I guess it's that innocent spirit."


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