Mary Martin stands inside her warehouse of postcards in Perryville. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
The main drag outside this former general store in the homey waterfront community of Havre de Grace — a short hop off U.S. 40 north of Baltimore — is drenched in Americana.
Antiques shops and local art galleries dominate the street, clustered behind kitschy window displays of knickknacks. A sign advertising a summer seafood festival is posted outside an independent bookstore.
But at the back of Mary Martin's downtown shop, you'll discover a far wider world, collated in an assortment of postcards, some featuring nearby small towns but many others far-flung foreign cities.
This is the "world's largest" postcard collection of Mary L. Martin Postcards, so large that it fills the back of Martin's Havre de Grace shop and an additional 10,000-square-foot warehouse a few miles north on U.S. 40, across the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge in Perryville.
The exact number of cards is a secret, Martin said, but it's more than 1 million.
See some of those vintage U.S. 40 postcards.
"People can come in here and pretty much ask for anything," she said of her collection, an inheritance from her mother and a carefully cataloged business inventory she plans to hand down to her children. "People are always amazed. They'll ask for [a postcard from] the tiniest town in upstate New York or Canada, and we'll have it."
If a customer's grandmother hailed from Zurich, Martin might have a picture of the church she attended, she said. A random diner off an interstate out west where a customer once ate? She might have that, too. Streetcars? The Great Baltimore Fire?
Check and check.
"We really get odd requests, but everything was put on penny postcards, so nothing is too bizarre," said Martin, 47, of the low cost that drove the cards' proliferation for decades.
"I think the neatest ones are of places you recognize now, and you see what they used to look like on the cards," said Natalie Russell, 24, Martin's daughter and a second-grade teacher at Joppatowne Elementary School who also works at the shop.
Martin's collection seems to fit in with Havre de Grace, a town born of its location at the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.
For years, the town was sustained by its location just off U.S. 40, also known here as Pulaski Highway, a steady conveyor of travelers west and a commercial backbone of the East Coast before Interstate 95 was built.
Martin's collection reflects the road's importance for travelers in old images of motels, diners and attractions along the corridor, from the former New Ideal Diner on U.S. 40 in Aberdeen to the former Enchanted Forest theme park in Ellicott City — a perennial favorite of collectors. "I sell them as fast as I get them," Martin said of the park's postcards.
Today, Havre de Grace is still sustained by its links to the past, with its antiques, old decoy collections, rare old books and Martin's vintage postcards.
That Martin's business enjoys a global reputation, including past partnerships with major institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution and retailers like Tiffany & Co., also makes it stand out.
About a decade ago, Smithsonian Magazine contacted Martin when it sought hard-to-find pictures of water-skiing employees of the now-gone Florida theme park Cypress Gardens. "We were able to supply them with beautiful, full-color pictures," Martin said.
Tiffany, the high-end jeweler, came calling in 2009 when it wanted to use thousands of images of 1930s and 1940s travelers for displays in its stores worldwide. Martin sent them boxes and boxes of postcards, then nearly was escorted out of a Manhattan boutique by security after getting a little too excited at seeing the success of the collaboration in person, she said.
Staff at the store told her customers loved the display's authenticity, becoming immersed in reading personal messages written on the backs of many of the cards.
Martin's family business started in 1966, when her father William — a stamp and coin collector —traveled around the country to collectors' shows. Her mother, also named Mary, would go along, and soon took interest in the postcards on display.
That interest turned into a business, and today, Martin — whose parents are deceased — publishes a global collectors magazine and attends about 40 postcard shows in the U.S. and Europe each year. People travel to see her collection, too, or contact her online. She'll sell one card for a handful of change in Havre de Grace and another for more than $1,000 online.
Joe Baker, 24, one of Martin's employees and an online sleuth, does searches for background information on hard-to-pin-down postcards.
"Sometimes I'll even go on Google Street View to see if the place is still there," Baker said. "It's a lot of fun. It's probably the best job I've ever had."