Benn Ray is the co-owner of Atomic Books in Hampden, Baltimore, Md. (Photo by Gabrielle LePore)

Story: Garland Young
Multimedia: Gabrielle LePore

In an era where most communities have been overrun by major corporate chains like Walmart, a small neighborhood in Baltimore, Md. manages to maintain a community feel.  You’ll find a “punk rock accountant” to manage your money, a local artists to supply the signage your storefronts, and a niche coffee shop for your morning cup of joe.

“My notion of a neighborhood, and one of the things as a leader in the business community as well as a resident in the area, that I strive for is to have as much as possible a sort of self-sufficient community,” said Benn Ray, co-owner of Atomic Books. “So that you don’t have to go out of that community for your needs, but you can go outside that community for your wants.”

Hampden is a quirky and unique neighborhood filled with independently owned shops that add to the individuality of the community. Located in the center of Baltimore City, Hampden provides its residents and visitors with restaurants and shops that you can’t find anywhere else.

At Golden West Café, a southwestern meets vegan cuisine restaurant, guests encounter a giant moose head on the wall and flip through menus made from laminated album covers.

Chris Bolesta is the kitchen manager of Golden West Cafe. View the slideshow. Photo by Gabrielle LePore

“Everybody here is very unique even the menu,” said Chris Bolesta, kitchen manager of Golden West Café.   “Although we have a very southwestern feel to us, there are plenty of things that have nothing to do with southwestern cuisine. We have vegan peanut noodles and different salads that have absolutely no characteristics of southwestern food incorporated into it.”

The unique menu has grown over the years as different staff members contribute to dishes.

In the early 1800s, Hampden consisted of a group of homes built for the people who worked in the mills in Jones Falls Valley.  At the end of the 1800s, business was booming and the neighboring areas of Hampden and Woodberry produced 80 percent of the world’s cotton duck, a type of cotton product used for ship sails. After World War I, the use of engine power decreased the need for this material and destroyed the thriving economy in Hampden.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the affordable property in that area prompted people to not only move to Hampden but open businesses. And so began the revival of the once dead community.

In 2010, Benn Ray opened Atomic Books, an alternative independent book store in Hampden. He moved from the neighborhood of Mount Vernon because there was a lack of green space available.  He said he was sick of his car being broken into and liked the idea of walking to work.

Independently owned businesses in Hampden are able to survive because they keep money in the community, said Ray.

“As a local business, I use other local businesses,” said Ray. “I have an accountant [and] we call him the punk rock accountant because he is in a few punk rock bands and lives around the corner. If I was a corporate chain my accounting office would be at the corporate headquarters in another state, so that guy wouldn’t be getting my business.”

This continual support makes Hampden self-sufficient and warm. Past and present residents love the quirky neighborhood.

“The neighborhood  kind of [takes you] back in time, everybody looked out for everybody else,” said Jenny Jo Nurick, a past resident of Hampden. “The first day I moved into my house the neighbors came over and introduced themselves, brought over lemonade, cookies and fresh donuts from the local bakery at the time. It was a really nice neighborhood feeling.”


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