Back to Normal’s

Alexander Rubin talks Normal’s with one of the store’s founding fathers.

It was 2008. My friends were using fake ID’s to arrange illicit, senior-year-of-high-school keggers, and I —who tended to get belligerent at such functions (if I didn’t pass out too early)—sought refuge from the suburbs within the seemingly endless supply of D-I-Y venues, businesses, and art galleries that Baltimore City had to offer. I was in heaven, albeit a rat-infested one.

One of the haunts that made the most impact was Normal’s Books & Music. Here was a shop that while only a few miles away from the tourist trap Inner Harbor section of Baltimore, felt —upon entry— like a portal into an alternate dimension.

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Normal’s is a cluttered, collectively run used book and music shop based out of Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood. It consists of four rooms and several corridors of handpicked aural and visual treasures— enough to drain your pockets but without any of the pesky post-drainage guilt!

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Normal’s opened in 1990 and has since become a Baltimore institution, voted Best Used Bookstore year after year by City Paper and given a seal of approval by John Waters.

So what is the big “IT” about Normal’s, anyway? What’s enabled the store to become such a bizarre yet beloved staple of Baltimore for nearly three decades? Rupert Wondolowski, Baltimore-based writer, musician, and co-owner of Normal’s graciously sat down with me to answer this question and many more.

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BRINE: When did Normal’s first open?

Rupert Wondolowski: It’s been over 25 years now. We opened June, 1st 1990. There were nine owners in the beginning. I was one of the original nine and we’ve dwindled down to three over the years.

BR: What inspired you all to open the store in the first place?

RW: A lot of us had worked in used bookstores for a while and wanted to start our own, so we could run it in our own fashion and hopefully make better pay. Also the 9 of us were all artists of some sort, writers, musicians, visual artists. We just felt that if we were self-employed with our own business that it would free up our psyches for making our art later at night.

BR: Have you always been in this location?

RW: We started two doors down in a really tiny space which is now a hair salon. When we opened, Normal’s was about a third of the size of it is now. Back then we not only sold books, records, and CD’s, we also had antique clothing and bikes, so it was really packed. Eventually we expanded and moved the books across the street to a basement. That wasn’t the best spot. We used to get broken into about once a week because there was a really seedy bar on the corner called the Northside. Basically the Northside would close and then a couple drunks would wander over there, bash in our window, and take the change out of the drawer.

One of our most imaginative break-ins was actually a break-out. A friend had given us a Reichian Orgone box  and we kept it across the street. One time someone hid in the Orgone box until closing and then, after we left, got out of the box, stole what little money we had in the drawer, and then broke out. We moved into our current space in the mid-90’s when its previous business, The 31st Street Women’s Bookstore, packed up and moved downtown. That’s when we took over and could combine the books and the records, which was great—a huge move for us, really a step up.

BR: Where did the name Normal’s come from?

RW: When we first opened the store, 4 or 5 of us were making money on the side being ‘Normals’ in a schizophrenic study at one of the hospitals. If you were found not to be schizophrenic you were a “Normal”. It was also just to play with the relativity of the word “normal.” Who draws the line on what’s normal or not? Since we were all fairly odd, each in our own way, this was sort of like our shot at normalcy, and making some money hopefully.

BR: Have you always lived in Baltimore?

I grew up in the suburbs near here, Glen Burnie, infamous Glen Burnie. When I was growing up there it wasn’t as awful as the reputation would have it. It was kind of rural at the time so there were lots of woods and lakes and creeks and things like that. Whereas now it’s just one big strip mall. Then I went to college at University of Maryland, College Park, lived around DC a few years and really didn’t like it at all. Being a writer and a musician just felt like it was a really closed scene there. Musically, if you weren’t apart of the Dischord crowd and making that kind of music, which I wasn’t, you were kind of shut out. The poetry there was, at least at that time, very academic or wannabe-academic. I moved to Baltimore in ‘84 because my girlfriend at the time started college at Towson. It was kind of an easy move for me because I went from working at the Bethesda Second Story Bookstore to the Baltimore Second Story. That was great because through working at that bookstore I immediately met the whole Baltimore art underground and just felt right at home.

BR: What would you say were the primary influences on the store and, if you will, curating Normal’s, which, for the uninitiated, is a unique treat in itself?

RW: We definitely approached opening Normal’s with a touch of theater, like seeing this as a stage, somewhat, and we wanted it to be as diverse as possible, for people to feel at home. We actually had an original subtitle to Normal’s called “Bargain Cobbly World”. The whole idea of “Cobbly World” was a big part of our original aesthetic. It’s actually a 50’s Sci-Fi reference. Phil Dick was also a huge influence on all of us. The films of the Kuchar Brothers. They did ‘Hold Me While I’m Naked’ and ‘Invasion of the Demonoids’; just wonderful, over the top, melodramas crossed with just like the funniest, kind of shticky stuff. The films of Kenneth Anger were also big influence, as was Baltimore itself and the whole idea of elevated kitsch, or surreal kitsch, which is something kind of unique to Baltimore.

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BR: When did throwing musical performances next door at The Red Room get thrown in the mix?

RW: Pretty quickly. Even in our little tiny original space we held our one and only art show. It was for Gerald Ross, the current head of MICA Exhibitions. He painted every president and Normal’s hosted his art opening. It was a really great series. That was within Normals’ first year. Then the Red Room started up probably in ‘94, ‘95. Before then we had some loose readings and improvisational jams and things like that. Then, over the years, The Red Room began booking weekly shows which are a very particular brand of improvisational/experimental music. Then I’ll do the kind of off-brand stuff like poetry readings or something that might be a little more folk or rock-ish.

BR: Talk a little bit about Normal’s in house publishing ventures such as Shattered Wig Review and the work of Blaster Al Ackerman.

It started with The Shattered Wig Review. That magazine sprang right out of a love of Baltimore. I was walking around town one day with a friend of mine, Nancy Sexton, who was a local artist and musician, and we were just talking about all the amazing writers and artists that we liked in Baltimore. This was in the mid-80’s and was definitely the peak of zine culture. So we decided to get together with a couple of friends and solicit local people whose work we loved and just try to get it out there. So the first issue came out in, God I don’t even remember anymore, ‘86 or ‘88?

Then, over the years, I put out a few chapbooks, little side-stapled fold-over things with cardstock covers. It was definitely very grassroots. The publications I’m proudest of though are Blaster Al Ackerman’s ‘Corn & Smoke’ because that was the second perfect bound paperback I ever put out and it was the first book of Blaster’s to come out after his stroke. I felt that it was really important to get his new work out. I was hoping the book would be a good psychological bolster for him. It was half his brand new stuff and half older work that had gone out of print.

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A few years after Corn & Smoke, I put out a book by a local group called The Tinklers, who are pretty legendary, definitely a back-bone of the Baltimore Art Scene. They started in the 70’s as a performance group and would put out publications like a fold-out history of the world with cartoon diagrams and everything. Then they became more of a music group, and made children’s songs for adults. ‘Mom Cooks Inside, Dad Cooks Outside’ is one of their big hits. ‘Tough Guys Are Probably Sad Inside’. They’re definitely very primitive but brilliant.

So I published a book of theirs called The Elements where they wrote a short story about each element of the periodic table. It was an amazing project. They originally put it out themselves and then I reprinted it in the mid-2000’s as a perfect bound paperback. I was really proud of that because Chris Mason (guitarist, singer) was one of the first people I met when I moved to Baltimore in the 80’s and who’s always been a big hero of mine, a mentor. Other than that, I probably did close to 50 chapbooks.

BR: How has Normal’s been able to weather the Internet’s digital threat?

RW: Around 2008 to 2010, 2011, with the combination of Señor Bush’s Grand Recession and –what I felt- were the peak years of the Kindle and digital downloading, times were very tough. I feel part of what has kept Normal’s going is people are aware that this place is run by artists and writers and I feel like that adds to a sense of community.

People know it’s not just a business. People come to shows at Red Room and that always helps. We’ll get sales at shows where people will be out having a few cocktails and they’ll pick up a book or two or a few records. Especially at this point, we’ve been here 25 years, there’s a lot of people who grew up getting their first shows at the Red Room, so I feel like you get a bit of loyalty through that.

But there definitely were a few years that were extra difficult due to the downloading aspect, where –especially among 18-28 years olds- I was literally being laughed at, who are walking in and literally sneering at the books and laughing like “Oh you’re selling books?!” You know? Like, “Oh my god, do people buy these?!”

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There were a couple times where I asked myself “Is it time to bail?” But, books were always one of my favorite, most treasured things, from a young age. My fondest childhood memories were going to the library every Saturday. And, just to me, I could not conceive of a world where physical books weren’t treasured. I just couldn’t see a reason why they would disappear and I couldn’t imagine a world going that far into digital culture that they would disappear.

And, as a lowest-common-denominator, most downloads are still more expensive than buying an actual book. Plus, a physical book you can lend to a friend, you can put it on your shelf. It’s an art object. It’s a time capsule.

I’ve been feeling the past year or two that people are starting to come back around to books. It’s kind of ironic, sort of like what happened with vinyl. When we opened in 1990, that was the heyday of CD’s, and we had people making fun of us for having vinyl. We all thought, “I’ve never had a problem with vinyl. I love the sound.” I bought CD’s also. I like CD’s. They served a purpose, but I wasn’t gonna drink the kool aid and melt down all my vinyl because there’s this hot new thing. Of course, when it first came out, they were saying CD’s were indestructible, which was complete bullshit. It’s like a record album. If you set it down and use it as a coaster, it’s gonna get fucked up, but if you put it back in its sleeve or case, it’s fine. But, literally, some of the exact same people who were making fun of us for having vinyl, years later came back and were trading cd’s to get vinyl again. My brother being one of them actually.

I feel like that is now happening with books, because I feel like people just get bored of staring at a screen. I know I do. I know I stare at a screen half my day at work. So who wants to go home and stare at a screen more? There’s just an intimacy to opening a book. It’s an art object and I feel like people are coming back around to that. And, I’m not normally an optimistic person but I’ve just been feeling like there are more people moving into Waverly and we’ve never lost our traffic, but I feel like there are a lot more people coming in with this excitement again of ‘Wow, this is a treasure hunt. All right!’ That’s what you do on a weekend, check out a used bookstore or record store. For people from out of town, I know for me, it’s the first thing I do when I’m visiting some place new, is go into a used bookstore or record store. It’s a great way to get a feel for the place to see what people are selling, to overhear conversation, to see actual humans out and about.

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BR: What is your favorite part about owning, running, maintaining your very own bookstore?

RW: It would be really hard to narrow it down to just one. I mean, because one aspect of it is like having your own candy shop, like walking in here, and I’ve been doing it 25 years, but it’s still, I love doing it, and there’s the joy of surprise of never knowing what’s gonna walk through the door. Just the other day a regular unloaded all of these beautiful treasures on me, all of these Mishima hardback firsts, Samuel Beckett hardback firsts, I just don’t know what’s gonna come through this door. Could be two crates of amazing classic soul or punk rock, you don’t know. So that is always one of my favorite things.

Another favorite thing is, I’m kind of an introvert/ambivert so, if left to my own devices, if I don’t have shows to play or readings to perform at I might just stay at home at night and not see a lot of people. This job has a really great social aspect to it where I’ve met amazing musicians touring through, other poets, just people from all walks of life, and it’s been very educational. It’s been very helpful to be here, say, like during the riots. It was incredibly comforting, because people come to places like this to talk things out, and Waverly is one of the coolest most integrated, in both economics and racial diversity I feel, neighborhoods in Baltimore. It was very comforting to be here during that time period. We stayed open throughout and just hearing what everybody had to say, and you realize, yeah, Baltimore, at the roots is a really cool diverse place, and people know what’s going on, and they’re not diluted by media.

BR: What goals or projects do you have for Normal’s in the future?

RW: We are hoping to, in conjunction with our landlord, spruce up the physical aspect of the building more. We’d just like to revamp the interior somewhat, just get some cooler homemade bookshelves and things like that. I want to continue doing my own shows, separate of Red Room and simultaneous with the Red Room, hopefully get back into publishing, and I want to build a special section that will give a little more focus to small presses. That’s been a big change I’ve seen happen recently. We’ve always had small press and there’s always been artists in Baltimore putting out vinyl and cassettes and cd’s. But, especially in the first ten years, people weren’t buying local stuff. Now, within the last 5 years or so, probably as a combination of Baltimore product going up in standards and, at the same time, people respecting Baltimore Arts more, we actually sell a lot more Baltimore culture, which is great.

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Normal’s is located at 425 E. 31 St., Baltimore, MD, 21218. They’re open from 11-6 pm Sunday through Friday and 10-6 pm Saturday. Check out their website for information on store events, buying/selling your treasures, or plan a visit around a show at The Red Room

Alexander Rubin lives in the suburbs and loves in the city–Baltimore City. He is a writer, composer, and filmmaker. He owns one pair of pants.

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