By: Courtney Parto
Baltimore has been my home since the day I was born. I’ve been just about everywhere and seen all of the major tourist attractions. The Inner Harbor, Federal Hill, and Canton are just a few of Baltimore’s major areas. However, Hampden isn’t typically in the forefront of any Baltimorean’s mind. Hampden is a small, triangular shaped neighborhood located in northern Baltimore alongside Route 83. It’s not a neighborhood that is very well known or gets a lot of credit or mentions. I’ve only been to Hampden on a few occasions. I had been there for the major tourist attractions, HonFest and The Miracle on 34th Street, but I had never been there just to explore. I’m always up for an adventure; so my boyfriend, Malik, and I decided to adventure through Hampden and see what the little neighborhood had to offer us.
It was a rainy Saturday morning when we made our way down Route 83 from Stevenson University in Owings Mills towards Hampden. The commute was only about 20 minutes, which was much shorter than I had expected it to be. Considering the weather, I wasn’t sure how lively the neighborhood would be, but I was surprised to find that there were still plenty of people on the street when we got there. We had no trouble finding a parking spot and then it was time for our journey to begin. As we made our way up 36th street, or “The Avenue” as locals call it, we quickly realized that this was unlike anywhere else in Baltimore. Every single shop and restaurant is locally and family owned (besides the 7-11 on the corner of Falls Road). This was not what either of us had expected. We were used to places like the Inner Harbor which is jam-packed full of popular chain businesses. It was a very pleasant surprise. It was at that moment that I realized just how much discovery might lie ahead of us. We had a lot of shops and restaurants to explore, so we continued walking.
One of our very first stops was at “Hampden Junque.” We stepped off of the concrete sidewalk and onto an original hardwood floor. As I looked around the room, all I could see was junk. I scanned from floor to ceiling looking at the posters, baby dolls, mirrors, and other various knick-knacks. It was unbelievable and crazy to think about all of the history attached to this random collection of objects. The store itself is about a 10 feet by 10 feet room with a small counter along the back wall. I felt like I was in the antique shop of all antique shops. Malik and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing. As we made our way around the small shop, he pointed out a marionette like one on our favorite television show, “American Horror Story.” It was terrifying. I felt its eyes following me as I made my way past it. “We gotta get out of here,” I said to him as I forced my way past him towards the door. Malik laughed. “Onto the next stop. Hopefully somewhere less creepy,” I chuckled.
We stopped in a few other places, and passed a local farmer’s stand that had produce for sale and free ice cream. Despite the rain, there were many smiling faces passing us on the street. As we continued our walk, we ended up in front of a neon green house. It was so bizarre. And conveniently enough, the shop is named “Bazaar.”
“This place looks interesting,” Malik said. “Let’s go in.”
The sign on the front was printed in a Halloween typescript and advertised taxidermy and medical oddities. I was scared. “I don’t think I want to go in there. The marionette was enough to give me nightmares,” I responded.
“We’re going in. This is all about the adventure, right? So we’re going to do something that we wouldn’t normally do. Come on!” Malik said as he held the front door open and gestured his hand for me to go ahead. I walked up the three stairs very cautiously, while looking back to make sure that he was following me inside. The store was small and crowded. It was probably the weirdest place I’ve ever been. I thought to myself, “Baltimore gets weirder every time I try to explore it.” Along the walls were different taxidermy animals, including a baboon, all of which were for sale at around $1,000. We made sure to get a good look at everything as we made our way around the perimeter of the store. I don’t know who would be interested in buying an antique ultrasound machine or a pig fetus in a jar, but that’s what they had for sale. They also had human teeth, raccoon penises, and taxidermy ducklings. It was strange. I left Malik towards the front of the store and began to make my way towards the counter in the back. The counter was a glass case that had something on display inside. I couldn’t get a good view of what it was, but I was able to catch a glimpse of the tag on the outside of the case. It read, “Real Human Skeleton $2,500.” My heart began to race. I quickly turned around, grabbed Malik, and bolted towards the door. “Can we go somewhere that isn’t going to scare me now?” I asked as I ran down the store’s front stairs.
We made our way back onto The Avenue and stopped for coffee at the first coffee shop that we saw. The name of it was Spro. As we walked in the door, I noticed how quiet it was. Much quieter than any Starbucks I’ve ever been in. There was one older woman sitting alone at one of the four tables and she was reading a newspaper. The shop was very minimalistic. There was nothing on the walls and only had the necessary pieces of furniture, but it was cute. We walked up to the counter and were politely greeted by the barista. She was a young woman, about 25 or so, with short black hair, thick-framed black glasses, and a hipster sense of style. She chatted with us about their specials and their Grounds for Gardens program, which provides their used coffee grounds to locals who would like to use them to better their outdoor garden. And of course she wanted to know if it was still raining. It was. We got our coffee and sat down inside for a few minutes. The peacefulness of this coffee shop made it feel like we had teleported out of Baltimore City and into a small town in a Midwestern state. It felt surreal. This feeling only continued.
Atomic Books and Nerdporium were our next two stops. Both were very quiet stores as well. Atomic Books is a bookstore that also carries a lot of comic books. There was no one else in there when we went in. Although it’s a bookstore, it didn’t feel like one. It’s definitely not your typical Barnes and Noble. Nerdporium was more nostalgic to Malik and me. They carried a lot of comic books and retro video games, like the Game Cube and Nintendo 64. There were a lot of action figures as well. It was definitely what people would classify as “nerdy.” It was cool to see a Nintendo 64 console in a store because I hadn’t even seen one in person since my childhood. I instantly had flashbacks of my siblings and I gathered around the basement TV waiting our turn to play Donkey Kong on our brand new, lime green Nintendo 64 that we all received for Christmas.
As I walked down the street, not one person I passed was on his or her phone. Every single person was standing tall and looking straight ahead. Most actually made eye contact and smiled, which was surprising. That doesn’t happen nowadays, especially in a city setting. The smiles that greeted Malik and me made a difference. We both felt welcome and like we were a part of the local community. No one thought of us as tourists or guests, and that was a unique feeling.
While making our way back up The Avenue, we stumbled upon Frazier’s. Frazier’s is a bar and restaurant that has been in Hampden since 1939. Neither of us had ever heard of it before, so we decided to eat there for dinner. We walked into a quiet restaurant with only a handful of people lined up at the bar and one television showing Sports Center. A waitress told us to sit wherever we would like and she would be with us shortly. We both flipped through the menu to see what our options would be. We expected typical bar food, but there were many possibilities on the menu. They offer many burgers and sandwiches, flatbreads, mussels, a variety of appetizers, crab soup, and six different kinds of tator tots. We were so excited. I stuck with the safe option of chicken tenders and French fries, while Malik ordered the “Hangover Hash” tots, which had sausage, cheese, and a fried egg on top. The food was great. While we ate, more people made their way into the restaurant for happy hour. Each person who came in knew someone else who was there. The waitresses knew most of them by name, and even knew what some of them wanted to drink as soon as they walked in the front door. It felt like a small town. I asked our waitress, Brenda, who was a long time employee of Frazier’s and Baltimore native, if this is a spot where a lot of locals hang out.
“Oh yes, it’s all locals in here. A lot of these people come here for happy hour multiple times a week. You two are the only ones we’ve never seen in here before, but we would love to see you back again! Everybody here is friendly, and they don’t bite, I promise,” Brenda answered with a smile.
“I like this place,” Malik said. I have to agree with him. Even if we felt a little out of place at first, I still felt welcomed and like I was a part of the culture at Frazier’s. It was a memorable experience to see a local hangout first hand.
Back on the street a young guy with auburn hair and glasses, wearing jeans and a dark blue hoodie, about 23 of age, approached us.
“Hey, I’m Ryan. I don’t mean to seem creepy, but you guys look like locals. Do you know a good place to get a bite around here?” he asked.
Malik and I laughed.
“We’re actually exploring this side of town, so not quite locals,” I said. “We just ate at Frazier’s, which is halfway down this block. The food and service was great,” Malik responded. Ryan asked us where we were from and said that he was from Ellicott City.
“I’ve heard good things about this place. A family member was just telling me the other day that I should check it out, so here I am,” Ryan laughed. Ryan told us that he had been wandering up and down The Avenue for an hour or so and enjoyed visiting all of the different shops, especially because they were all locally owned. We chatted for a few more minutes before he headed off to dinner at Frazier’s, meanwhile Malik and I called it a night.
A week later we made the trip back to Hampden, but this time we were there early in the morning. We arrived at approximately 9 a.m. on a Sunday to make it to the family owned doughnut shop, B Doughnut. The shop opens at 8 a.m. on the weekends and is open until 1 p.m. or when they sell out, whichever comes first, because they are made fresh every morning. Malik and I love doughnuts, so we were very excited to be there. We parked right across the street and made our way up the front stoop into the shop hoping that they were not crowded. As I opened the front door, the scent of brown sugar permeated the room. There was only one other woman in the small shop. In the back of the room was the counter at which you order, and to the side was a bar with four barstools and a large chalkboard on the wall with the doughnuts of the day followed by their prices. On the front counter there was a tray with a sample of each doughnut they have, so you can see exactly what you’re getting. They sell filled and non-filled doughnuts, in addition to their specialty, everything bagel doughnuts that are cream cheese filled. We ordered our doughnuts and grabbed two seats at the bar. Jackie, a Baltimore native, was already sitting there.
She looked at us and said, “Please don’t judge me for eating three of thee doughnuts by myself. I recently found out that I’m pregnant and I can’t stop eating these. It’s a problem,” she laughed.
“We aren’t here to judge,” Malik said. “To be honest, I wish I was able to eat three of these,” I responded. We continued talking and learned that Jackie had lived in and around the city her whole life.
“I’ve explored just about everywhere,” she said, “a friend from work introduced me to this place and now I’m hooked. My husband judges me, but I come here at least one Saturday a month now.”
Malik’s face lit up. “That’s the life,” he said.
We asked Jackie if there was anywhere else in Hampden that we should visit. “If you haven’t been to Common Ground, you have to go. It’s right on the avenue. They have coffee and some breakfast food. It’s my favorite!” Jackie said.
We finished our delicious doughnuts and decided that we would go. We thanked Jackie for chatting with us and wished her the best of luck with her baby on the way.
While Malik went into Common Ground to get coffee, I waited at one of the small tables on the sidewalk out front. There was a man sitting at the other table with an adorable Staffordshire terrier named Flounder. Flounder was so excited and came right over to me. Flounder’s owner was Greg. He was waiting for his fiancée, Maddie, who was inside getting their breakfast. Greg told me that he and Maddie moved to Hampden about a year ago and live one street over from the avenue.
“We love it here. We’re able to get a little bit of the city living vibe but at a slower pace,” he said. I wondered how Greg liked the atmosphere of living In Hampden. “It feels a lot like a small town, surprisingly. We’ve gotten to know people really well and see a lot of the same people around all the time. There are sometimes tourists around, especially for HonFest and the Christmas lights, but in general it’s a lot of Baltimoreans who hang around here. It’s pretty cool.”
Maddie and Malik both came out of the coffee shop one behind the other. Malik was very excited to meet my new friend, Flounder, because of our love for dogs. Greg and Maddie were headed home; they wished us luck with our exploring and went on their way.
Hampden has a very interesting vibe. The welcoming people, quaint shops and restaurants, and overall slow pace of the neighborhood intertwine to create a small town culture in a big city. I was excited to explore and learn about this tiny neighborhood and what it has to offer Baltimoreans, as well as tourists. It is quirky, picturesque, and charming. I feel as though this is a part of the reason why Baltimore has been nicknamed, Charm City. I learned very quickly that you don’t have to travel far, or spend a lot of money, to go on an adventure and try something new. Exploration can happen anywhere with anyone, and I’m incredibly thankful that I was able to find a new place that both Malik and I enjoy. I can’t wait to explore the rest of the world with him by my side.