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Alumnus-owned indie bookstore in Baltimore doubles as a community hub

Joseph Carlson.

Located in Baltimore’s historic Pigtown neighborhood, Charm City Books offers the quintessential quirkiness and warm personal service indie bookstores are known for but also doubles as a community hub.

“Pigtown doesn’t have a lot of retail locations but has a really vibrant population and a socioeconomically diverse population,” says Joseph Carlson (B.F.A.’08/A; M.F.A.’11/A) who opened the bookstore in October 2019 with his wife, Daven Ralston. “We met with the executive director of Pigtown Main Street, a nonprofit dedicated to the commercial revitalization of the Washington Boulevard commercial corridor. The community wanted a bookstore; it was the top three things they were looking for. Coffee, groceries and books.”

Carlson and Ralston delivered. Operating in a defunct Baltimore Police Department substation, Charm City Books also provides a gathering space for classes, workshops and other events, and also ships its books anywhere in the U.S. 

“Charm City Books is a space for everyone, a place where neighbors can connect and learn about one another through literacy and the arts,” says Carlson who recently sat down to share more about the business and his love of reading.

Why did you open Charm City Books?

There are a number of reasons why we opened a bookstore. My wife and I are freelance teaching artists and that was going well. We had a lot of part-time jobs and were struggling at the same time, but in that kind of beautiful struggle. We were at a point where we can be young and poor, but we can’t be old and poor. We needed to do something to take more control without giving up our passions. We still wanted the sense of autonomy that comes with being freelance artists.

My wife was working part time at a couple places, a bookstore and a florist. She was an English and Spanish major at UVA and really loved working in the bookstore. I have been an actor, but have always been an organizer. At VCU, I was always making things happen. With a few amazing colleagues, including Tony Santiago, we founded the Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre. The organization is still humming today with an active board. I’ve always been interested in community organizations and worked with the Conciliation Project, now The Conciliation Lab in Richmond. 

We have always been community oriented and wanted to bring art and theater to the community. After some thought and personal reflection, we decided to open a bookstore and community event space. 

Why Baltimore? 

I consider VCU and Richmond my home. Richmond is where I stepped into my purpose, and found my people. It is a massively special place to me. That’s part of why we moved to Baltimore because there are a lot of things that remind me of Richmond in terms of the art, the richness of culture and the sense of community.

We moved to Baltimore to be close to family. That’s the most important thing for us, family. When I think about where I want to be and what I want to be doing ultimately, I want to be with my friends and my loved ones, and work helps make that possible. We were looking at places and found a spot in a neighborhood called Pigtown, officially known as Washington Village. It is just west of Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Stadium right off the highway. Since we are right off the highway, we are accessible to different parts of Baltimore City and neighboring counties in Maryland. 

Our space was once a Baltimore Police Department substation. I thought the space was perfect. It has two floors, so we have a space where we can do our community events and a space for the bookshop. Before the pandemic, we did about 20 to 25 different events a month, like book launches, puzzle and movie nights. Since the pandemic, we transformed it into a children’s room with learn-through-play toys and a whole play area as well as tons of awesome new children’s books. It’s become a favorite destination for neighborhood playdates and local writers to visit early some mornings to do some quiet writing in the sunshine of the south-facing windows. We’re excited about taking our events to different spaces in the neighborhood like the local brewery and Mobtown Ballroom.

We have become part of the landscape; a resource and sanctuary. When it’s raining, adults and kids step inside to stay warm and sometimes we give them a free book. It is a great way to pay it forward especially when we have extra books laying around. It never gets old when somebody walks in and says this place is beautiful. We have plants everywhere. There’s such a range of books and representative stories and authors on the shelves, and it really does feel like magic. One of the quotes we use on our bookmarks is “Books may well be the only true magic,” said by Alice Hoffman. And they do, they hold spells inside of them, they cast a spell on the reader and the power that lays in them is transformational.

We are hoping to expand and create a digital content studio that can be a resource to other nonprofits and organizations and people in the community. We can assist with the use of it to promote what they want or to make what they want, and so we have a lot of exciting things that we’re continuing to develop, including digital content. The other day, fellow VCU alumnus Brandon Rashad Butts recorded his cooking show [here] with history tied to it. He connected the book “The Cooking Gene” in relation to Juneteenth and African American and Black cuisine. This helps accomplish one of our dreams to have a production studio based in Baltimore that provides opportunities for employment, learning and other organizations to use the equipment.

What is your favorite book? On your website, we read it’s a tie between “The Paper Canoe” and “The Prophet.”

Yes, and I would add a third to that list. All three speak to me as a professional and as a person because I have a relationship with them. The first, “The Paper Canoe: A Guide to Theatre Anthropology” by Eugenio Barba, I read when I was in undergrad at VCU. It just blew my mind that there is this guy who was a theater anthropologist and brought together all these principles of performance. He spoke about it in this very spiritual and transformational way, which is very different from the entertainment model that we think of when we think of actors and performers. It opened my mind up to the different kinds of theater that existed in the world in terms of experimental performances and physical-based performances and performances that transcended language barriers. 

“The Prophet” was my grandma’s book. I found it when I was staying at my grandparents’ house after she passed away. “The Prophet” is a book of Proverbs; it’s allegorical and proverbial. It was given to her by her English teacher in the mid 1920s, and it had all of her notes. She had a relationship with the text, and I was able to see that and commune with her through this book even though she had passed away. It still remains a book that I will pick up and it will inevitably give me something I’m looking for I didn’t know I needed.

I would add, to round off my top three, Heather McGee’s “The Sum of Us,” which is a newer nonfiction book. If I could get every person in the world [to read it], particularly every white American who does not think that anti-Black and structural racism is a very real and serious problem, I would. McGee, who’s an economist, goes through history with the idea of the zero-sum gain, where if somebody wins, somebody else loses. She says that we have all been losing because of this. She uses the analogy of the pool, both the very real public pools that were drained to avoid integration and the health care pool and other government-run socialized programs that have benefited many people in the past. Those programs are great for creating a white middle class and excluding everybody else along the way. She beautifully goes through it with individual stories and case studies which illuminate the intersectional issues and build towards what she calls the solidarity dividends, which is again what we can gain by coming together and working towards actualizing a more equitable nation.

What are you reading now?

It is a book by Colson Whitehead called “Harlem Shuffle” coming out in August. I am finding it hard to do work because I cannot put it down. It takes place over a few years, approximately 1959 to 1963. The story is about a furniture salesman in Harlem who owns his own furniture store. It is a moral tale couched inside a crime novel that is also about commerce and the Black community. I have been googling pictures of New York during the years [the book takes place] to see what it looked like, and Colson Whitehead must have done research because the way he describes the scene is perfect.

In high school, you think you are going to learn history through nonfiction, but you can learn so much about history and people through fiction. I think schools should diversify the authors who are taught. I think everyone should read James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, the Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, the works of Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson. You cannot be prepared to be an informed citizen in America without reading those authors’ works.

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