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Perfectly Normal's

Twenty years after nine friends started a business, it's still going strong

Sam Holden
John Berndt (left) and Rupert Wondolowski mine culture.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 6/16/2010

Normal's 20th Anniversary

With music by Zomes, Bow-Legged Gorilla, Ornate Coal Men, and DJ Lucky Charms Eaton; readings by Blaster Al Ackerman and Megan McShea; and short films by occasional CP contributor Rahne Alexander and Kristen Anchor.

14-Karat Cabaret, Friday, June 18

The walls at Normal's Books and Records are crowded with album covers, scary clown paintings, newspaper clippings, and random oddities: fishing lures, puppets, a gorgeous velvet painting of a Doberman Pinscher. A photo of Allen Ginsberg hangs from one shelf. The inscription, addressed to one of the store's owners, reads: rupert--can I run naked in your yard? xxoo allen. It's decor with history, and for good reason. On June 1, Normal's celebrated its 20th anniversary.

As independent bookstores across the country are closing, unable to compete with megastores, e-books, and Amazon, Normal's has survived. By cultural standards, it has thrived. It is the unofficial home of the Shattered Wig Press and The Shattered Wig Review. The Red Room, the experimental performance venue that birthed High Zero--one of the largest improvised music festivals in the country--grew out of Normal's. The store itself still sells more merchandise in person than online, and regularly attracts record collectors from as far away as Japan and Germany. Normal's success is perhaps all the more surprising because it began as a collective.

In 1990, nine friends--some had known each other since high school--decided to open a clothing/bike/record/bookstore on 31st Street called Normal's Bargain Cobbly World. (Legend has it that the name came from the fact that several of the owners had participated as "normals," or controls, in medical trials for schizophrenia research. "Cobbly World," which eventually was dropped, referred to a 1950s sci-fi novel.) The friends--all artists, musicians, or writers--decided they would each pitch in $500 and donate their labor until the business made a profit.

"We all thought it would be a good way to have a day job that wouldn't enslave us and would leave us psychic energy to work on our art and music," says Rupert Wondolowski (an erstwhile City Paper contributor), a writer who remains an owner.

Several of the participants had spent years working in bookstores, but no one had much experience as a small-business owner. Agreements were made verbally and the store's aesthetic came about organically, through the tastes of the participants. "We didn't really think things through," says John Berndt, founder of the Red Room and one of the four remaining owners. "It's just sort of shook out for us over the years, fortunately in a good way. In retrospect, I think it was a lot of luck."

Former owner tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE--his name, he says, is "basically the answer to the question, 'What's your name?'"--calls the early years "incredibly grim." Drug busts in the area were regular occurrences, and business was slow. "I spent 80 percent of my time just fending off hustlers and would-be robbers and very little time selling anything," he says. The store was able to weather this period largely because the burden was shared between a number of people, all with different skills (and, crucially, outside employment). Walt Novash, an engineer, was available for projects like rewiring the store. Peter Zahorecz, an artist, designed the sign that still hangs outside. Other owners were skilled curators, and selected most of the books and music. The clothing and bike elements of the business quickly fell away as, over time, did five of the owners.

In the mid-1990s, when Normal's moved to its current location just down the street from its humble origins, business increased. Students came from the Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College, and Loyola University. Other customers wandered in from the neighborhood or the nearby Waverly Farmers' Market. Ever since, the enterprise has been stable, if not wildly lucrative.

What has made Normal's succeed where so many other similar ventures have failed? Novash, who remains a co-owner, points to the project's modest aims. "I don't think anybody really had the expectation that we were going to be some sort of huge business conglomerate entity that was going to take over Baltimore," he says. "It has been big enough to survive and very good at what it does, but always sort of working within its niche."

tENT says the store's survival has to do with its place in the community. "I can go into Normal's and there will be a comfortable chair plopped somewhere in the store and a couple making out in the chair," he says. "And nobody who runs the store is going to go up to them and say, 'Hey, what the fuck are you doing?' We'll just be happy they're comfortable in the store."

Perhaps the answer is simply that Normal's sells things you can't find elsewhere. The store's vast and varied book collection includes a carefully cultivated stock of classics in philosophy, Greek and Roman literature, religion, art, and history. The extensive vinyl collection covers all the major genres and most of the minor ones. But it's the unusual, esoteric finds--what Wondolowski has called "pockets of sweet subversion"--that make the place unique: the Japanese issue of a Joy Division album, the out-of-print Trotsky biography, the illustrated guide to cannibal culture.

These days, the selection is largely Wondolowski's doing. Though four owners nominally remain, he is the only one who still works in the store and attends to its day-to-day operation. In 20 years, much has changed about the business. About 40 percent of the stock is now sold online, for instance, and vinyl has had a huge resurgence. But the daily routine is more or less the same as ever, with the company of a store pet--currently Max the dog--and a dazzling variety of customers. "We get Muslim police officers, but then we also get young Hopkins students," Wondolowski says. "We get wild mulleted young electronic musicians. "

One regular is a security guard who has, on occasion, bought out the store's entire Eastern Religions section. But there are also annoying visitors, like the man who recently came in, crouched down and slurped alcoholic eggnog while offering everybody in the store free condoms. "You never know what's going to happen," Wondolowski says.

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