Baltimore: The City That Reads

Baltimore’s literary scene is booming


| January-February 2009



Over the years, the city of Baltimore has spent millions of dollars to boost its embattled public image. In return, Charm City’s clever, self-deprecating citizenry has been force-fed one underwhelming slogan after another, from “Baltimore Is Best” and “The Greatest City in America” to “Get In On It” and “Believe.”

In his 1987 inaugural address, former mayor Kurt Schmoke introduced the well-intentioned but immediately mockable motto “The City That Reads” (think “The City That Bleeds,” “The City That Breeds,” and so on). That slogan is invoked sarcastically to this day, but it’s not for lack of literature. In fact, the area’s thriving independent literary scene should serve as an inspiration to anyone, in any city, who feels the creative slump of the economic recession and fears there’s little room for imagination or innovation.

Baltimore’s highly engaged community of readers and writers show up en masse for inventive reading series, fuel popular zines and lit journals, and support the city’s industrious libraries, bookshops, and publishers.

The zine scene is particularly intriguing, especially since much of the creative energy that fueled that medium in previous decades is now often funneled into blogs and websites. Local darling Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore! is published three times a year by William P. Tandy, who started the zine in 2001. Tandy collects stories from both polished writers and newcomers, filling the booklet’s pages with colorful tales of rats, crime, and assorted neighborhood hijinks. Though Smile, Hon very much inhabits its native city, the publication will appeal to anyone who is compelled by the darkly funny, serendipitous, sometimes undignified realities of urban existence.

On a whim, Tandy sent a couple of early issues of Smile, Hon to Baltimore’s then-mayor, Martin O’Malley. To his surprise, he received a personal note from O’Malley (now the governor of Maryland). “Your books have caused a bit of a stir in my office,” Tandy recalls O’Malley writing. O’Malley was referring, in particular, to a St. Patrick’s Day story written by Tandy, which began innocently (if drunkenly) enough with a visit to Bohager’s bar, where the mayor’s céilidh-rock band, O’Malley’s March, happened to be playing. At some point, Tandy explains, one of his friends spilled a shot of Rumple Minze on the table—which then caught fire. “Yeah,” he says. “Caught fire. While the mayor was onstage.”

Though Baltimore is home to more than 600,000 people, the mayor’s gesture speaks to its tight-knit vibe and lack of pretension, characteristics that help keep the lit scene open and evolving. “The city never had the resources that a lot of the bigger cities around here did, certainly not New York or Philadelphia or D.C.,” Tandy says. “Those are all the bigger siblings who got the farm and the looks, but Baltimore got the personality. When you’re starting with less, it fosters creativity.”