Shelf Space: Atomic Books

We talk to the store's co-owner Benn Ray

Baltimore’s Atomic Books opened in 1992 as a home for the extreme publications, zines, underground comics, and books that other bookstores wouldn’t carry. When owner Scott Huffines closed the store in 2000, Benn Ray and Rachel Whang, longtime friends of Huffines and fans of Atomic Books, decided to reopen it, with Huffines’ blessing, at a new location in their neighborhood of Hampden. In the back of Atomic Books, Ray and Whang added Eightbar—a bottle shop serving local and craft beer and wine. We talked with co-owner Ray, who is also an adjunct professor and freelance writer, about “mutated minds,” handmade books, and John Waters.

How would you describe Atomic Books to the uninitiated?

Atomic Books is an independent bookstore that focuses on alternative and underground voices, perspectives, and publications. To give you a sense of what we mean, our tagline is “Literary Finds for Mutated Minds.” So we carry a lot of zines, minicomics, handmade publications. Atomic has nonfiction sections like “The Bush Disaster,” “Hail Satan,” “Mayhem,” “Bodily Fluids,” and “The God Problem.” Basically, Atomic is a reflection of our likes and interests. We don’t try to carry everything, only the good stuff.

If Atomic were a religion, what would be its icons and tenets?

We’re atheists.

Which was your favorite event and why?

We’ve had a number of events where we’ve thought, “I can’t believe we’re lucky to have this event.”

Davy Rothbart and his Found magazine events are always a lot of fun. We’ve gotten to meet and have events with Dave Eggers, Anthony Bourdain, the Hernandez Brothers, Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Laura Lippman, John Sayles, and so many more. But my favorite event, the one where I think everyone working at the store at some point all looked at each other with an expression that said, “this is magical, this is important, and I can’t believe we’re fortunate enough to be here,” was the book release for Chloé Griffin’s Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller. We realized that this had become an unofficial reunion for the Dreamlanders, John Waters’ troupe of actors. We looked around the room, and John was there, Mink Stole was there, Sue Lowe was there...almost every Dreamlander. It was just so special.

Shelf_AtomicWhat trends are you noticing among young readers?

The main trend we’re noticing is that young readers seem to prefer real books to electronic books. So many young readers I’ve spoken to recently have said that they just don’t like reading “digital” books.

How did Atomic become a way station for John Waters’ fan mail?

John is a lover of books (especially oddball and weirdo books) and a voracious reader. When Atomic Books opened, our first location also just happened to be near the spot where Divine infamously ate the dog poo in Pink Flamingos. John appreciated Atomic Books for the bizarre and extreme publications that we carried. Since he likes to get fan mail and he stops in Atomic regularly to shop and sign books, it just seemed to make sense for him to have his fan mail delivered to the store and to pick it up when he comes in.

What are some of the bookstore’s top current handsells?

Currently, John Doe and Tom DeSavia’s Under The Big Black Sun, Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys, D. Watkins’ The Beast Side, Kathy Flann’s Get A Grip: Stories, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Daniel Clowes’ Patience, and 2015 Baltimore Uprising: A Teen Epistolary.

What is your ideal busman’s holiday?

Well, owning our own business means we rarely get to travel. So I’d like one day to create the Atomic Book Mobile and spend the summer traveling to other bookstores and festivals. 

Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor.  Photos above credited to Rachel Whang.

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