Awesome Men Throughout History: Abe Sherman
This week’s subject of Awesome Men Throughout History is a Baltimore icon, and something of a hyper-local legend for people who still remember old Baltimore (defined roughly as “Baltimore before heavy industry went down the toilet”). His name was Abe Sherman, and I’ve been told by people who knew him that he was one of the most cantankerous, odd, and yet somehow likeable businessmen in Baltimore. He might be my spirit animal.
Sherman was born in 1898, and served in both World Wars, enlisting in the second one when he was a spry 44 years old. He refused to wear the insignia of his rank for some reason, but he did earn battle stars during his military career.
In any case, Sherman’s real local fame comes from the newsstand he owned and operated for roughly a hundred million years. Not only did he sell the gamut of American newspapers at the time, he also sold international papers like the Irish Times and Izvestia. And, as time went on, he stocked every subversive publication the 1960s threw at him, from underground newspapers and pamphlets to rock ‘n roll posters to Nazi stuff (although he claimed to be taking down the license plate numbers of people who bought Nazi literature and turning their information over to the authorities). His dedication to stocking controversial material wasn’t ideological as much as economical—hippies were a blooming market, after all—with a liberal dose of sheer cussedness thrown in for good measure.
That was the other thing about Abe; he was, according to locals, “a tough and scary man…he would stand right behind you, while you looked at magazines or books, with his arms folded over his chest [and] admonished any customer who did not put a book or magazine back exactly where they had picked it up from.” He was quick to lob insults at rude customers, and sometimes more than that. Abe had a tear-gas gun to ward off robbers and, by his own admission, wasn’t shy about letting loose with it.
And heaven forbid you tried taking him to task for the stuff he sold in his bookshop—moralizers got the worst of it.
Abe did have friends, though. Famous ones. He was chummy with Babe Ruth at one time, and with writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald (who he described as “a drunk” and “a souse”) and H.L. Mencken, both of whom lived in Baltimore at one time. Maybe they helped contribute to “the Sherman problem,” described by The Baltimore Sun as “driving by, grabbing a paper from Sherman and paying for it—without stopping.”
While Abe Sherman might not have the greater impact of other Baltimore mainstays like John Waters or Barry Levinson, he was a colorful part of the community for a really long time, and his newsstand was an important gateway into the counterculture of weirdness that, in many ways, truly defines Baltimore. And at his core, he was a tough old man who didn’t take any guff and followed his own course through life, which is what being an Awesome Man is all about.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.