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Inside the Mutated Mind of Atomic Books

In our ongoing quest to hone in on and highlight the qualified, quirky and sometimes quixotic individuals who make up the indie bookstore scene, we were blessed to gain insight into the ongoings at Atomic Books in Baltimore, Maryland. Far from your average Main Street bookshop, Atomic Books offers an eclectic and imaginative mix of books, zines, comics, music and art toys–what they call “Literary Finds for Mutated Minds.” Co-owner Benn Ray was kind enough to share with us a wealth of experience and insight, including what it’s like running a bookstore in a city of weirdos, why vampires and zombies aren’t disappearing anytime soon, and how he almost became the next Snookie.

Atticus Books: Right off the bat, anyone visiting your store or website can feel the very unique, indie vibe. What would you say is the aim or mission statement of Atomic Books? How is it distinct (which it most certainly is) from other indie bookstores in the area?

Atomic Books: Well, our motto has always been “Literary finds for mutated minds!” so we try to adhere to that. We come from a solid DIY foundation, so we are very interested in, and carry a lot of, DIY publications–zines, comics, self-published books, etc. We are a curated bookstore, and our inventory is based largely on the tastes of the people who work at the store, and also many of our customers. Frequently, a customer will say, “You should check out this publication,” so we do and end up carrying it. The most recent example of that would be Tom Tom Magazine–an all-female drummer magazine. So when you come into Atomic Books, you are walking into a curated collection of publications that reflect the interests of those involved on some level with the store–and that character is immediately noticeable.

We were one of the first bookstores to treat graphic novels and comics with the same respect that works of fiction or literary journals are used to. We also mix our more adult fare in with the rest of our titles. While we enjoy making categories for books, we’re not big on segregating titles based on arbitrary social mores–personally, I see no difference if you are into crocheting or Japanese rope bondage. We have categories in the store like Monster Lit, Hail Satan, The God Problem, The Bush Disaster, Stories for Disturbed Children, etc.

Atticus: Any story behind the name?

Atomic: Not really. Atomic Books was started by my friend Scott Huffines. He ran the store until 2000 when his affinity for betting on the ponies caught up with him. Rachel Whang (my partner) and I were fans of the store and realized we didn’t want to live in a city without an Atomic Books, so we took it over.

Atticus: It seems like Atomic Books is constantly hosting killer events at the store. Book signings are a given, but could you tell us about the non-book events that go on in the store? Any recent big hits?

Atomic: We have a variety of things going on in the store quite often. In a way, since it’s filled with all our favorite things, it’s almost like our clubhouse. If you come by after hours, there’s a good chance you’ll find us playing video on our projection system. But we host things like Vinylmore–an annual DIY art toy show which usually has about 50 to 75 local area artists. Our opening night usually pulls in about 400 or so people. Offsite we used to host a popular, annual “I Hate The Eighties Night” with a bunch of Baltimore bands covering bad ‘80s music. We also have clubs like a book club, a music club, a movie club, etc.

Atticus: For those that don’t know, Baltimore is such a different kind of city. Very eclectic, a little left of center. Are there any traits particular to B-more that you find make it an ideal home for an indie bookstore like yours?

Atomic: Well, Baltimore is a city of weirdos, and we’re a weirdo bookstore. Baltimore produced John Waters, and he comes to our store so often he has his mail delivered here. Baltimore is a town that embraces the quirk and shuns mean judgmentalism–and that mentality is in our store’s DNA. In Baltimore, you can’t take yourself too seriously because, well, you’re in Baltimore. The same goes for Atomic Books.

Atticus: Not only is Baltimore unique, its residents are even more so. To put it as cheerily as possible, what makes your customers special?

Atomic: Our customers are looking for a place that understands and respects who they are by understanding and respecting what they’re into–whether that be body modification, sploshing or black metal. If you can walk through our store and laugh or be fascinated by the things you’ll find, you’re our people. If you start to get mad and your face turns red, we’ll gladly hold the door open for you on the way out.

Atticus: Aside from offering a ton of books and “gift-y” items, you do a pretty good magazine trade. How is dealing in magazines or even comic books different than the (for most booksellers) more familiar book market? In what ways does this diversification contribute to the store’s atmosphere and/or success?

Atomic: It doesn’t strike me as that big of a diversification. Again, we are about carrying things that we like to read (and other ephemera that catches our attention). If that thing happens to be a magazine, a comic book or a novel, we don’t really see much difference. The way magazines are handled, business-wise, is different than books, which is different than comics, which is different than zines and self-published mini-comics, which is different than LPs and CDs…but it comes down to it, we like magazines, so we carry magazines–specifically ones we read or want to read.

Atticus: We couldn’t help but notice that much of the material you stock is, on your website, labeled as “our favorite” or what “we like,” especially when it comes to music and movies. This raises an interesting question–should indie booksellers be catering to a prospective “audience” or are you of a “if you build it, they will come” mentality?

Atomic: Again, we’re about carrying what we like. We want to help spread around the things we like, and connect to others who are into the same things. The chances are good that if you like, for example, the book Songs in the Key of Z, you’re probably going to be curious about the music of Daniel Johnston. If you are into serial killers, you may be interested in Charles Manson’s records. If you like Noam Chomsky, you might like the documentary version of his book “Manufacturing Consent.” These things are all connected in our minds, regardless of the medium.

Atticus: One trend your stock represents well is this widespread obsession with zombies, vampires, androids, etc. What do you make of it? Is it just a fad, or is “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” here to stay?

Atomic: Zombies and vampires have been with us for decades, and they’re not going anywhere. That’s the thing about the undead, they tend to linger. There certainly is a glut of it, and gluts tend to squelch trends faster than a fire department can put out a fire (well, the sorts of fire departments that don’t require you to buy fire insurance before they’ll put out your house fire, anyway). But it’s still going, and it has been for a long time. A good friend of mine is a Professor at University of Maryland and he’s even teaching a zombie course this summer, so who knows? I think the “classic lit + super natural undead being” trend is played out. But then, I thought werewolves (the lamest of all the supernatural creatures) trend had no legs and it seems to be doing nicely, so what do I know? I think people, given the economic and political climate of the modern world, are understandably fascinated by apocalyptic literature and I think it’s popularity will stick around at least as long as this economic crisis does.

Atticus: Baltimore is the home of a number of literary greats, from Edgar Allan Poe to Anne Tyler to Ogden Nash. What’s the scene like nowadays, as far as writers currently active in the Baltimore literary landscape?

Atomic: Baltimore has a vibrant literary scene. There are a number of reading series popping up–we even host one–The Atomic Fiction Series. But writers like Michael Kimball, Jessica Anya Blau, Larry Doyle, Stephen Dixon, Madison Smartt Bell, Laura Lippman, and David Simon, in addition to a small army of younger writers currently self-publishing, make for a thriving literary scene. Not to mention, John Waters just scored a hit with his great book, Role Models. There are a lot of quality writers doing a lot of interesting things in Baltimore–but in order for a literary scene to survive, you need readers too. And fortunately, Baltimore has that.

Atticus: We’re intrigued by rumors of the store’s flirtation with the possibility of a reality TV show a few years back. If the show had materialized, what kind of program do you think we’d be seeing? Of course, no reality show is complete without a healthy dose of drama. What do you think would serve as the biggest source of conflict in a bookstore reality show?

Atomic: We did work on a pilot for a reality show, and there was, we were told, some interest, but no one ever picked it up. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), there’s not a lot of conflict in the store, as we all get along very well. I guess, given time, I could have become the Snookie of Atomic Books. But the idea of our TV show was more like a variety show with interviews. We have a number of famous customers, many of whom regularly pass through town on tour with their bands, etc. So the idea was to have a reality show set in Atomic Books, where they film us talking to specific customers about why they’re into the sorts of things they’re into (“So tell us, Ms. Movie Star, why do you like Jeffrey Brown comics?”), running in-store events, and going out into Baltimore to enjoy stuff going on in the city, like when Crispin Glover came to host a screening of one of his movies, or when our friend Dan Deacon is organizing Whartscape. So it was kind of like this reality/variety show hybrid.

Atticus: Obviously, a lot of planning, time and hard work go into maintaining a store as popular and active as Atomic Books. What’s the biggest perk that compensates for all this hard work?

Atomic: Opening the mail. Whenever we get our daily shipments in, it feels like my birthday. And then I get to share that stuff with the friends who come to Atomic. That’s really what it’s all about for me–sharing the things I find awesome with people who will also find those things awesome (or find them not awesome and then be able to discuss it with me).

Photo Source: Atomic Books

About Libby O'Neill

Libby O'Neill is Managing Editor of Atticus Review, as well as this journal's deadbeat granddaddy, the independent press Atticus Books.

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