When I was a teenager in the 1990s, one of my favorite things to do when I was in the city was visit the multitude of stores that sold books, CDs, and other various bric-a-brac. Before the internet indexed seemingly every item in existence and put them all for sale on eBay, there was a genuine sense of discovery in these places: often owned by local proprietors whose collections spanned their own offbeat interests, you could find things that were otherwise extremely difficult to locate in mainstream stores. Anime/manga, hard-to-find albums by musicians who weren’t regularly played on the radio, vintage toys, collections of books on esoteric subjects – you never knew what you’d stumble across that would spark your interest. These stores felt like curated flea markets and when you found one that aligned with your own fandom you might befriend the owner or salespeople, who could help direct you ever deeper down the rabbit hole you’d found there.
The internet wiped many of these places out, changing searching for odd paraphernalia into a much easier and more expensive proposition. While you can now easily locate, say, G1 Transformers or antique Ouija boards online, the prices have skyrocketed since you’re competing with everyone else who shares your interest and can now find these things as easily as you did. Scouring online sites also kills some of the ability to connect with something new – it’s a lot less likely a random record will catch your eye and convince you to take a chance on it because it has interesting cover art and only costs $2.50.
Protean Books & Records in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore is one of the modern-day survivors from this era of stores, and displays its eclectic tastes proudly. The outside is rather drab and unassuming (which, if you’ve visited these places in their heyday, is exactly as it should be) but when you step inside you are overwhelmed by a riot of used books, records, DVDs, video games, toys, and other nostalgia-inducing treats. Comic book and movie figures of all sizes adorn the shelves (including playsets of Castle Grayskull and the Ghostbusters’ firehouse), old electronics and Fisher Price record players sit in wooden crates underneath the shelves tempting you to root through them, and movie posters and comic books covers are plastered on the walls.
This alone would be charming enough, and certainly worthy of a visit, but Protean Books also has another surprise for visitors: in the back of the store, behind beads and curtains, lies the Crypt of Curiosities. The Crypt is a throwback to oddity collections that used to draw visitors in to shop at stores, full of spooky urban legend exhibits in a nearly dark room. Protean Books’ crypt is decidedly tongue in cheek and full of dark humor. For example, you can read about the Baltimore Harbor Witch, who is described as a woman who “was a troublesome woman, able to calculate numbers without pen and paper” and “flaunted this ability among men” without proper “shame and humility”; after challenging the incorrect numbers of a census-taker she was thrown in the harbor and haunts it to this day, still trying to make her point about the census numbers. You can also read about spirit photography, the Grisly Remains of Baron Radu, voodoo dolls, and a variety of other supernatural relics that are more likely to make you laugh than shiver.
It’s worth noting that places like this, aside from being fun to visit and colorful additions to an area’s retail landscape, are worth supporting because so few are left. If you’re passing through Baltimore, Protean Books is a quick stop off the arterial roads, parking is easy, and you might just find a new treasure that you never knew you were missing.
Matthew Christopher MD Baltimore Dec 02, 2021 Off The Path