ANNAPOLIS — On most days at the Annapolis Bookstore on Maryland Avenue, the smell of coffee weaves through the shelves while St John’s College students, known to locals as Johnnies, hide in its corners, buried deep in the Great Books.
On Friday mornings, however, the coffee is replaced by apple juice, cookies and sippy cups as the smallest Annapolitans gather for the social event of the week — Nanny K’s story time.
Maryland Avenue, which stretches for three blocks between the Naval Academy and State Circle, is the state’s oldest commercial street in continuous use, serving locals since the city’s earliest days.
Jeff Lucas, professor and director of research at the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland, said that places like the Annapolis Bookstore are places for the locals to have an oasis and disassociate themselves from “the other” — such as tourists on nearby Main Street.
Nanny K’s story time is an opportunity for parents to gather, grab a coffee, catch up, exchange tips and make plans — while their kids gain a social and educational experience.
Donning a black hat, black coat and a high-collared shirt, Nanny K, known to the adults in her life as Katrina Atsinger, serves up a “perfectly British” brand of book reading.
She brings children’s classics like “The Gruffalo” to life with voices and an animation that begs the question whether the 36-year-old Atsinger has done this her whole life.
“I’ve only been doing it since September,” she said.
It’s not so surprising, however, that a local bookshop would attract an Oxford University graduate and former English teacher.
“I’m just drawn to a local bookstore like a moth to a flame,” Atsinger said.
The black and white awnings and red chairs outside of the shop pull in groups of locals through the heavy, bell-adorned door.
They are greeted with the quirky style of Janice Holmes and Mary Adams: a large black arm chair to the left; beautifully bound books to the right; deep red walls and hidden nooks to keep a curious soul entertained for hours.
If you’re lucky, Holmes’ dog, Fez, will come bounding through the shop, starved for the mountains of attention showered upon him by friends and strangers.
The shop is a place of community gathering, where, as Atsinger puts it, the owners’ style is imprinted everywhere. But it is not the only shop of that nature on Maryland Avenue.
Lining one of the spoke-like streets that hits State Circle are an Irish pub, a women’s consignment clothing store, a barber shop, a boutique general store, several gift and antique shops and a record store, among others.
“Oh, I love that place,” Holmes said of the record store. “You go in there, Matthew, he’s just so him, and the store is him. So you have an experience of something that isn’t like, well, you name it, Target or whatever those places are.”
Maryland Avenue remains a vestige of a bygone era, standing firm in the face of what distinguished professor George Ritzer at the University of Maryland calls “the McDonaldization” of society.
“The surprise it’s not that they fail. The surprise is that they succeed,” said Ritzer who is with the sociology department at the College Park campus.
“They have to imbed themselves in the local community and befriend the people in the community and make it clear that they are different and that they do care about the people they’re dealing with,” he added.
As Adams and Holmes look forward to celebrating 10 years in the book slinging business on Dec. 4, they continue to look for ways to distinguish themselves and show they care.
As a result, Atsinger now sprinkles her British charm across the shop each week.
“I love England with all my heart, but I feel very much that life brought me here for a reason,” she said. “We can be very self-consciously British, and for something like this I couldn’t do this in England for it to mean as much. That is something I can play with here and it’s appreciated.”
She wants to see Holmes and Adams succeed for another 10 years, and that means staying relevant to the local community.
“Get the parents and caretakers with little ones to come in more frequently and make it a part of their week. Something that brings them pleasure and joy so they can start to see what a treasure we have here on Maryland Avenue,” she said.
It’s a treasure that’s seen proposals, weddings, parties, meetings and the occasional state official reading books in a bed that Holmes and Adams set up in the shop around Valentine’s Day.
“It was a lovely, personal place to have our wedding,” said Joseph Francis Horner, a local resident and frequent visitor.
Horner, 25, and his wife, Ashley Renee Fetterolf, 27 — former Johnnies themselves — got married at the store, but the event was a Maryland Avenue affair.
Holmes officiated, Annabeth’s shop across the road provided the champagne, and then the couple and their guests went to Galway Bay, the Irish pub, for dinner, Horner said.
“It was just a little over 35 people and one of the coffee wenches helped us serve beverages,” he said, laughing.
The Annapolis Bookstore, which moved from the adjacent block of Maryland Ave about six years ago, almost remained a humble tome shop, lacking coffee.
The block that it resides on is not zoned for food service establishments. Had it not been for a co-operative city council and a supportive community, their dream of bringing quality, fair trade coffee to their customers would have been be a bust.
“The city was kind to us and tried to collectively solve the problem. They decided that, now it’s the convention that bookstores have cafes,” Holmes said.
As a bookstore, they are allowed to have up to 25 percent of the floor space as a cafe.
“Even so, we still had to have four public hearings. It was crazy. But, we are so lucky, the community came out over and over again, you know 100 people at a time,” Holmes said. “We want to have a bookstore, we want to have this bookstore, let them have coffee.”
“Even the commissioner said, ‘Wow, we have to listen to a lot of things, and lots of public hearings. It’s refreshing when everybody wants the same thing,’” Holmes added.
Lucas said he isn’t surprised that locals flock to the quaint outpost.
“We identify with our group memberships, such as locality, regions, states. People develop identities around where they’re from and where they live,” he said. “They look for ways to verify their identity.”
The store is not unwelcoming to visitors, it’s simply that they rarely stumble into it.
Adams recalls a story of an Australian visitor who was told of the store by a friend. He rented a car in Washington, drove all the way to Annapolis and even after asking around, couldn’t find the street. He went home disappointed.
Despite a lack of visitors’ dollars, the shop survives, thanks largely to the local community that keeps supporting Holmes and Adams — even if the books cost a few dollars extra — and a continuing stream of Johnnies that will never be short of a need for reading material.
Atsinger will become a Johnnie herself soon, she has been accepted into their master’s program and will begin next semester. St. John’s, established in 1696 as King William’s School, offers a liberal arts degree with a focus on the Great Books — a list of texts that are thought to form the foundations of Western philosophy and literature.
“The Great Books course is just something that — I’ve wanted to go on and do that ever since I graduated from Oxford,” she said. “To fill in those gaps with the philosophy, the history, even the science, the theology, just so I can get an even more comprehensive picture of the conversation through the ages.”
At least she’ll know where to get the texts.