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Hampden: Now That's Baltimore

By Deborah Tunney
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 25, 1998; Page E02

Shoppers who find Baltimore's Inner Harbor less than compelling should continue just a few miles north for the homegrown charm of Hampden. The appealingly scruffy neighborhood, which steals the show in John Waters's new film, "Pecker," is fast becoming one of Charm City's most interesting shopping areas.

A former mill town, Hampden is the kind of place where local kids play barefoot on the sidewalks, where Christmas decorations festoon Formstone row houses well past Memorial Day and where folks line up on hot days at the snowball stand in front of the Mini Mart. (Most popular flavors last summer, according to the proprietor: egg custard, cherry, chocolate and "definitely sky blue for the kids.")

"I've always been inspired by Hampden," says Waters, a Baltimore native. The director maintains a local studio that he claims to have furnished mostly from Hampden's thrift shops (which, he says, are a source for some of Manhattan's savvy dealers).

In recent years, young artists and entrepreneurs have increasingly discovered Hampden's offbeat appeal, and a new crop of funky galleries, boutiques and antiques shops has emerged among the pawnshops and dusty five-and-dimes along the 36th Street "Avenue." Some shops have limited hours, often weekends only, so call ahead before visiting.

Start your tour at Mud and Metal (813 W. 36th St., 410-467-8698), which was one of the first of the avant garde to arrive on the Avenue a few years ago. It offers an array of original works by regional artists, not to mention a hip selection of artful fixtures such as drawer pulls, knobs and hooks. One-of-a-kind finds on a recent visit included a hand-forged steel sunflower lamp ($500) and garden gongs fashioned from rusted oxygen tanks ($200 to $500). Then again, there was also a bowl of pencil sharpeners in the shape of human noses and fingers--85 cents each.

The polished brass plaque at the Pearl Gallery (815 W. 36th St., 410-467-2260) reads "Paris, New York, Hampden"--and a staffer reported that the occasional gullible shopper inquires about the store's locations in the other two cities. Pearl sells paintings, sculpture and textiles by regional artists, along with chic wearables and housewares. True to the local spirit, the proprietor emerged barefoot to show me around. She stopped to show off the second-floor view of Baltimore's skyline. "Doesn't it seem just like a Paris apartment?"

Hampden's cluster of antiques shops includes Orin Kenney (851 W. 36th St., 410-467-1763), the Avenue Gallery (845 W. 36th St., 410-243-2500) and Fat Elvis (833 W. 36th St., 410-467-6030), which flaunts kitsch from the '40s through '60s. I can't resist a bullet-shape lipstick in "Snow Pink" to add to my collection of vintage cosmetics.

Across the street, Oh Said Rose (840 W. 36th St., 410-235-5170), whose name comes from a Gertrude Stein book, carries handmade clothing, kimonos and vintage-inspired dresses. Pieces of Olde (824 W. 36th St., 410-366-4949) has vintage textiles, plus prints and posters. Cheap Chic Interiors (828 W. 36th St., 410-662-8383) features antique furnishings and housewares.

House of the Moon (863 W. 36th St., 410-662-7433) adds a spiritual air with its selection of astrology books, tarot cards, incense, gargoyles and Feng Shui manuals. For $3, I purchased a ready-made voodoo ritual for "Success in Court" for a friend (who, by the way, later reported victory).

Farther down the street is Galvanize (927 W. 36th St., 410-889-5237), where I nearly stumbled over a pail of leather whips ($5) just inside the door. There's also trendy hemp merchandise, club wear and other camp and vamp clothing, plus a basement full of retro-chic, from bowling shoes to used Levi's.

Much of the "retro" is simply contempo repro at the nevertheless charming Hometown Girl (1000 W. 36th St., 410-662-GIFT), where nostalgic gifts like Dick and Jane magnets mix with such regional souvenirs as "I'm Crabby" T-shirts and Eastern Shore recipe books.

Though not on the Avenue (it's in "uptown" Hampden, teases its promo card), La Terra (4001 Falls Rd., 410-889-7562) is worth rounding the corner. Housed in an artistically refurbished machine shop, it sells eco-friendly and recycled goods: handbags made of license plates, bottle cap bracelets and owner Mary DeMarco's line of jewelry (it's more fun to buy it here than in Nordstrom, where it also retails).

An eclectic selection of eateries offers a ready shopping respite. Among the local favorites are the faux '50s Cafe Hon (home of Baltimore's annual "Best Hon" contest), the funky Tex-Mex hot spot Holy Frijoles and a smattering of blue-collar bars full of local color. Alas, since summer's over, the snowball stand has closed.

A "First Fridays" celebration on the first Friday of each month enlivens the Avenue with performances, refreshments and shopping specials. And holiday shopping is a treat, with the nearby "Miracle on 34th Street" display of outlandish Christmas decorations--from hubcap Christmas trees to plastic Santas. It's one of Baltimore's quirkiest holiday delights, hon.

To reach Hampden from Washington, take I-95 into Baltimore and pick up I-395. Turn right on Pratt Street; just past the Inner Harbor, turn left on President Street, which turns into I-83. The Falls Road exit off I-83 takes you into Hampden. Turn right onto 36th Street and you're on the Avenue.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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