"A hotbed of ... something."
is your average, everyday, collectively-run
/obscure used bookstore
/performance art venue
storefront (all on a sesame seed bun).
But it's in Baltimore
, so take the place you're picturing right now, make it five times weirder, and paint it purple and yellow. That's more like it.
For the novice, let me take that slowly from the top. Normals is a used bookstore. It's collectively run by four people (down from nine when it opened in 1990), and none of them are the 'boss' - they're all equal partners. The founding members met through the Baltimore Pschiatric Research Center, where they were employed as the control group - the "Normals" - in a series of research studies on Schizophrenia. From these professionally normal beginnings was created something decidedly unconventional.
Normals is a used bookstore. In Baltimore, Normals is THE used bookstore; I'll bet you dollars to dinars that as long as the Citypaper does the annual Best of Baltimore awards, Normals will take Best Used Bookstore every single year. The reason for this is pretty simple: it rocks. It's simultaneously comforting and a bit of a mindfuck. The first thing you may notice when entering is that it's a LOT bigger on the inside than it looks. From the fairly average (if bright yellow) exterior, the books extend far, far off and out of sight, arranged on homemade shelves in what could be termed "aisles" using only the loosest possible definition. And yet they're highly organized. You will find carefully labeled sections sorted by author and subject. And what sections! Does the local Barnes and Noble feature a section titled "War?" No, sir, they wouldn't dare. This is a bookstore that doesn't pussyfoot around its subjects; if you're looking for books on magic, don't fart around in the religion or self-help section - go right to the "Magick and the Occult" rack, conveniently located right across from "Law and Order." But don't expect to find crap. Unlike the majority of used bookstores, Normals doesn't traffic in romance novels and Jackie Collins. The fiction section is, in a word, Glorious. And cheap. And, occasionally, a treasure trove; a few months ago I bought a signed first edition of Chimera. The price was low enough that I felt compelled to tell the clerk that the book was worth far more than the penciled price on the frontispiece indicated. He wiggled his eyebrows and grinned, "we know."
Normals is a used bookstore...but it’s also a music store of astounding breadth. From the latest boy band CDs that your little sister is swooning over to the rarest vinyl around, Normals has got it. If Rob Gordon found his way here, he’d never leave. The stock is unscratched, underpriced, and unparalleled. And while you’re pecking, be sure and talk to the clerk. Chances are he’ll know what you can’t live without before you do. And he won’t pressure you to buy things you don’t want.
Normals is a used bookstore...but it’s also home to the Red Room, where the idiot savant garde come out to play. Part of the purpose of the Red Room, as given on their website, is to be “an investigation of the possibilities of life uncluttered by modernist naiveté or post-modernist cynicism.” On any given Saturday, you can drop by to hear anything from a lone sax to the latest in improvisational composition for a drums, clarinet, and theremin trio. Some performers play on instruments of their own invention. This ain’t your father’s beatnik scene. Having staged over four hundred concerts since it’s 1996 inception, the Red Room also serves as Mission Control for “HIGH ZERO,” a yearly festival for improvisational musicians.
Normals is a used bookstore and an adventure. If you like books, if you like music, if you like Baltimore, you’ll like it here. And being around the corner from Pete’s Grille doesn’t hurt.
Just watch out for the cat
Normals Books and Records
425 E. 31st Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
Open 11am-6pm daily.