The Peabody Book Shop: One for the books… Or Not.

The Peabody Book Shop was ‘a place where respectable people could come for a sandwich and a glass of beer.’

By Mary K. Zajac (Style Magazine, Sept/Oct 2009)

Come in,” the sign above the basement door at 913 N. Charles St. invited. “Visit our Famous Beer Stube serving Cocktails – Beer – Food.”

There’s no counting how many Baltimoreans descended the dingy stairwell into the to share a beer at the communal wooden tables, hear poetry read aloud, participate in sing-alongs or watch as the Great Dantini performed his magic tricks. But everyone who passed through, it seems, has a story to tell, and one rarely about books.

My father still talks about one evening when he saw film star Veronica Lake and another when crooner Rudy Vallee walked in (he was in town performing at one of Baltimore’s theaters). Cockeysville resident Morry Wexler (father of Style senior editor Laura Wexler) recalls glimpsing his future wife, Trudy Ricker, there for the first time (though they didn’t actually meet until later). This was in the 1960s, when the Peabody was in the hands of the formidable Rose Boyajjian Smith Pettus Hayes (the lady loved— or perhaps didn’t love— her husbands), who owned and ran the two-story brick storefront at 913 N. Charles from 1957 until she died in 1986.

“Rose Smith [as she was once known] was a tough lady,” Wexler remembers. “She could deal with people. If she wanted to she could have picked them up by the seat of the pants and thrown them out.”

A 1968 Baltimore magazine article describes Rose as “an amiable but hard-headed woman with Streisand-like features” who tried hard to maintain the Peabody’s original aura of conviviality, if not the book inventory. Wexler remembers bachelor nights with friends at the Peabody when the proprietress would usher pretty female patrons to the long community tables where he and his friends were drinking. It was that kind of chummy place.

Founded by Austrian immigrant Siegfried Weisberger and his brother Hugo, the Peabody started life as a bookshop around 1927. When Hugo Weisberger died in 1931, Siegfried, who with his circular framed glasses, bow ties and inky mustache bore a slight resemblance to Groucho Marx, maintained the business, keeping the bookshop stocked with the kind of inventory he thought was important: an esoteric collection of art books, literature (in French, German and English), music and medical texts. In 1933, he transformed the building’s garage into a beer cellar as “a place where respectable people could come for a sandwich and a glass of beer,” he recalled in a 1974 article in The Alternative magazine. “Beer and books go together like balls and bats,” he opined in another publication.

Over the years, Weisberger’s “respectable” clientele included medical students, Peabody students, out of town visitors, and most famously, H.L. Mencken, with whom Weisberger was known to share conversations and glasses of beer (it was also rumored that F. Scott Fitzgerald drank there once— but then he drank at a lot of places). There was food, including sausages made by Weisberger himself, and there was nearly always music, especially singing, led from the upright piano that sat snug against one of the paneled walls.

Continue reading “One for the books” at Style Magazine.

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10 Responses to The Peabody Book Shop: One for the books… Or Not.

  1. This is one of those amazing Baltimore places that I never got to. I knew of it. I was dying to get there and then it was gone. I done messed up.

  2. Scott – I never made it to the Beer Stube either. I was a county boy!

  3. Joel Cairo says:

    I was from NJ, working for a pipeline company and got transferred to the Baltimore area in 1959. By chance I found the Peabody Book Shop while in town one night. I thought I was in Europe. I told my friends back in Jersey about it and they came down to see. They all loved it. I got to know Rose too. Even though we’re all in our late 70’s now, we still reminiss about the place. It was one in a million.

  4. It was a truly magical place where the memories made would be endelibly etched in hearts and minds, melding with the ethreal and eccentric atmosphere made by each one who entered into the cultural shifting of society of that era…

  5. Another far out favorite was THE ZEN DEN !

  6. I DID get there…and I have a mug to prove it. We lived in Baltimore County [Owings Mills] at the time and had gone to “town” to see “The Green Apple Nasties” at a Baltimore celebration and City Fair [I think it was called]. A any rate after several groups had performed…refreshments were needed…so we ducked into the Beer Stube…and I talked the waiter into selling me a mug. We moved to Bainbridge Island, Washington in the early 1970s…and in 1980 our house burned to the ground…but we managed to find in the rubble, some treasures. One was my Peabody’s Mug and a few others of my collection of mugs. It brings back so many happy memories of living in Baltimore! Ruth “Nikki” Nickell; Hoquiam, Washington

  7. Ruth A. “Nikki” Nickell says:
    February 2, 2016 at 3:35 am
    I DID get there…and I have a mug to prove it. We lived in Baltimore County [Owings Mills] at the time and had gone to “town” to see “The Green Apple Nasties” at a Baltimore celebration and City Fair [I think it was called]. A any rate after several groups had performed…refreshments were needed…so we ducked into the Beer Stube…and I talked the waiter into selling me a mug. We moved to Bainbridge Island, Washington in the early 1970s…and in 1980 our house burned to the ground…but we managed to find in the rubble, some treasures. One was my Peabody’s Mug and a few others of my collection of mugs. It brings back so many happy memories of living in Baltimore! Ruth “Nikki” Nickell; Hoquiam, Washington

  8. Ripper says:

    The owners son would toil over a caricature as you stood still only to find out in the end a atick figure was all he could draw

  9. Kelsey H says:

    Peabody’s was the beer drinking literary hangout of my college days in the 70s. Was that a moose up on the wall, and a french horn? Thousands of books you could thumb through, tables varnished by time, smoke and grease. Music and friends. Oh, and beer, lots of beer.

  10. Scott W. Williams says:

    I went there as a timid Morgan College student in 1961. It was the first place I ever read my poetry to others (1963), and the place I learned to appreciate Folk Music. Each time I traveled home from Buffalo New York, I always found time to spend at least one evening there until my father died in the 1980s.

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