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 Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube 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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