Julie Wan

Julie Wan [www.juliewan.com] is a writer whose work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Kartika Review, BookBrowse, and the Washington Post, among others. She received her MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She and her husband, also a writer, live in Washington, DC, but are always aching for travel to distant lands.

A Place for Stories: The Annapolis Bookstore

I discovered the Annapolis Bookstore two years ago, when a friend and I were ambling through the narrow, cobbled streets of downtown Annapolis, Maryland, taking in the ocean smell of the Chesapeake Bay. As we turned off State Circle onto Maryland Avenue, we came upon baskets of used books lying out in the sun by the stoop of an old house. A large bay window revealed a leather armchair, a world globe, and a side table with a stack of books.

A bookworm at heart, I needed no further invitation, but little did I know that I had stumbled into a rabbit hole that day– a world complete with its own bookstore mouse, traveling pussycat, and rumors of a secret passageway.

Inside, the ocean air gave way to the musty smell of yellowing pages. Books—mostly old, but some new—spilled from floor-to-ceiling shelves onto chairs, mantels, countertops, and stepladders. Like many of the boutique shops in downtown Annapolis, this one is run out of a historic Georgian-style house, likely dating back to colonial times, when Annapolis briefly served as the nation’s capital.

Surrounded by the low ceiling, framed artwork, and walls of bookcases, I felt as if I were browsing through someone’s carefully culled personal collection. And in a way, I was. Despite the overflowing shelves, this isn’t the kind of store where you sift through piles just to find something of interest. The owners, Mary and Janice, handpick the books from estate sales, their own travels, and boxes brought in by neighborhood readers.

I learned the bookstore also hosts readings, book discussion groups, concerts, a citywide Great Annapolis Treasure Hunt fundraiser, and even an annual read-in-bed-a-thon. This last event involves replacing the usual armchair in the front window display with an actual bed, where people take turns curling up with a book under a patchwork quilt to while away the cold months.

Making my way through the shelves in the front room that day, a dusty blue wall in the back suddenly caught my eye, luring me away from the brightly lit storefront into the back corners of the house. In this pirate’s den of treasures, I found a cozy reading corner with a carved wooden chair leaning against a tree strung with lights. This children’s section was filled with beautifully illustrated hardcovers, including The Annotated Alice, Gulliver’s Travels, The Wind in the Willows, and other children’s classics. But there were newer books I hadn’t heard of too, like The Librarian of Basra, which tells the true story of a librarian in Iraq who single-handedly transported an entire library of books to safety in the homes of civilians during the war.

I settled into a dim corner to read, ignoring the tornado warning in the region that day. As shelves loomed high above me and thunder rumbled outside, I couldn’t help thinking there must be many worse ways to die than under an avalanche of books, here in this enchanted place.

What seemed like hours later, when I was finally ready to check out with my selection of books—which included a faded red, Blue Ribbon illustrated edition of The Arabian Nights—Mary pointed me to a mouse hole at the side of the counter.

“Have you met Copernicus?” she asked.

Perhaps if I were several feet shorter and many years younger, I might have discovered it myself, but as it were, Mary had to direct my 27-year-old self to the two knee-level windows carved into the counter. Delighted, I picked up the large wooden magnifying glass sitting next to the mouse hole and peeked into what looked like a fully furnished mini-apartment filled with its own volumes of books and a framed picture of a sailboat with tall masts. But where was the mouse himself?

“Oh, he’s off sailing around the world!” Mary told me. “With Bob the cat. You can follow their adventures on their blog!

Bob, it turns out, really is traveling around the world. As it happens, Annapolis is a big sailing town, and Bob’s owner has brought both cat and mouse along on a circumnavigation of the globe aboard the Sylph, searching for icebergs, open seas, and high adventure.

“Bob the cat is real, right?” I later asked Janice, just to make sure.

“Oh, everything’s real!” Janice responded with a chuckle. “But, yes, Bob the cat is, by any definition, real.”

When I asked how they came up with the idea for Copernicus the mouse, Janice mentioned her love for how children respond to the world. “As children mature and begin to discern what’s real and not real, sometimes there’s disappointment,” she said. “There are things [that] I’ve come to accept are not as magical as I’d want them to be. So I try to cultivate something of a magical quality here.”

Copernicus’s story grew out of an old tradition. “In most stories,” Janice said, “there’s the hero, there’s the teacher—like Merlin or Yoda—and there’s also someone who has to witness the hero’s journey. Copernicus is just one of a whole line of small, unique characters tasked with witnessing all those acts of heroism people do all the time.”

Just as an entire world lies between the covers of a book, Janice explained, they wanted to create a world within the walls of the bookstore, and within the bookstore, a window to yet another world through Copernicus’s home, each with its own story.

The Annapolis Bookstore itself has developed a rich history of its own and an interesting cast of characters. Five years ago, Mary Adams—a direct descendant of the second president, John Adams—found a spot down by the City Dock and thought it would make a perfect old bookshop selling “used, new, rare, and always remarkable books.” Several months into the venture, her friend Janice Holmes lost her husband and was searching for a project she could throw herself into. Mary invited Janice to join her, and thus, a business partnership was born. But more than that, a spark was ignited.

Inspired by Ray Oldenburg’s philosophy of the “third place,” Mary and Janice wanted their bookstore to serve as a communal space—a sphere beyond the private home (“the first place”) and the formal workplace (“the second place”).

“We wanted to evoke a sort of community life that people long for, that has the quality one might expect from an earlier era, when communities were more local,” Janice said.

The shop’s first location was tiny, barely 200 square feet. “It was a jewel box,” Janice reminisced, “jam-packed with books.” But the small space didn’t stop people from coming, and the owners soon found that running a bookstore was a lot like having a neighborhood bar.

“Everyone wants to come in and tell their stories,” Janice said. “Most of the time it’s even better because people are sober—but not necessarily!”

Over time, it became a place where people could get lost in stories—ancient stories, new stories, each other’s stories. Sometimes the stories happened right before their eyes, as when a marriage proposal took place within those very walls.

As word about the bookstore spread, Mary and Janice found that they just didn’t have the room for what people wanted to do, like share music, read poetry, or have book signings. So, they moved to a house at 68 Maryland Avenue, which is where I found them.

Here, the shop has been able to expand. There’s even room for an old secretary desk that opens up to reveal a piano keyboard. Mary bought it at an estate sale a while back and, on my first visit, she urged me to give it a try.

As if charmed by my surroundings, I found my normally shy self gamely picking up a book of Beethoven sonatas. I flipped to a slow movement I had once learned and made out the notes. Mary opened up the front door to let the music drift out to the street.

Since that day, I’ve returned to the bookstore every so often, sometimes bringing my out-of-town guests to meet Copernicus themselves (but he’s always, it seems, out on some adventure or another). Because I live in DC, it’s not often I’m able to visit. But the few times that I have, Mary’s eyes have lit up with recognition, and when I called her recently to say I wanted to write about the bookstore, I was touched that she still remembered me.

This past month, Mary and Janice have been busy transplanting the Annapolis Bookstore to its third location at 35 Maryland Avenue, just one block from its last home. When it opens on July 1, loyal customers will have a bigger house to explore, with two stories, a spiral staircase, and a secret garden in the back. There will be a fairy in the garden, and she’ll have a little home that people will be able to stumble upon, much like Copernicus’s now. Janice is working on a backstory for the fairy as well. They also plan to open a coffee shop inside to further build the community experience.

When I asked if there are still plans for a secret passageway, Janice mentioned a hidden entryway in the works, leading down to the basement and then winding back up to a different part of the shop.

Unlike the usual bookstore experience, the Annapolis Bookstore is more than a place for books—it’s a place for stories. And the best way to be part of that story, I’ve discovered, is to come with a spirit of adventure, letting yourself stumble upon something new. You might even stumble right into a secret passageway.

The Annapolis Bookstore

35 Maryland Ave.

Annapolis, Maryland 21401

(410) 280-2339