When James Hamlin first opened The Avenue Bakery on Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue in August 2011, he had what some considered to be a half-baked idea—to help revitalize the historic street and community. Naysayers believe that you have to get rid of all of the crime and drugs along the now rundown avenue before you can revitalize it. But Hamlin disagrees. “That’s putting the cart before the horse,” he exclaims.
“You have to invest in a community and build economic development in order to decrease crime. People always say, ‘somebody should do something,’ but who is somebody? I think of Michael Jackson’s song ‘Man in the Mirror’ where it says, ‘If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.’”
So the former UPS community relations manager and NAACP second vice president decided he would be the one to help change Pennsylvania Avenue back to the economic and entertainment force it was when he was a kid. “And Baltimore’s housing commissioner at the time told me that ‘in order to get people to come back to Pennsylvania Avenue, you have to put something there that you can’t get anywhere else.’ And that was the birth of me opening The Avenue Bakery,” shares Hamlin.
On a Roll
For ten years, Hamlin has served customers from all over Baltimore, across the United States and as far away as Sweden. “I have a guestbook up front for people to sign, and that’s book number five, so I have all of our visitors documented,” boasts Hamlin.
“When you come here for the first time, I always give you a sample of my rolls. And people always say they’re like the rolls their mother, aunt or grandmother used to make,” says Hamlin with a smile. That’s because his famous rolls are what his mother used to make.
“Even though you can’t tell by how small I am, I’m a carbs guy,” laughs Hamlin. “And I always loved the rolls that my mother made but never got her recipe, so I came up with what I thought would be her recipe and started making them myself for about 30 years at home.” He continues, “I’m from a family of 11 and Thanksgiving was always at my house. So three to four weeks before Thanksgiving, I’d start making the rolls and put them in the freezer so I’d have plenty for Thanksgiving dinner and for people to take home.”
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The rolls became so popular that Hamlin started selling them from his home. And because his granddaughter started calling him “Poppay,” Hamlin decided to call them Poppay’s Rolls. They are the highest-selling item at the bakery, whose sub-name is “Home of Poppay’s Rolls.”
“A friend of mine told me about this place that serves rolls the way mother used to make them,” says Rita Crooms of Baltimore’s Ashburton neighborhood. “So one time we were going home from a church service and we said, ‘Oh, there’s that bakery!’ So we came in looking for Poppay’s Rolls, but then found all these other good things, like the cinnamon rolls and the pound cake,” Crooms recalls.
She doesn’t drive, so Croom visits the bakery whenever her granddaughter, who is a neurologist and also named Rita, visits from New York. Hamlin says Sunday is his busiest day, with customers coming from the many churches in the area.
Like Crooms, Q. Jason Orem also comes for Poppay’s Rolls, as well as the cinnamon rolls and pound cake. He’s been coming for three years after services at Trinity Baptist Church, just around the corner. And he enjoys seeing a photo of his church up on the wall. “Whenever I come here, I love and enjoy looking up at the historic photos of Pennsylvania Avenue on the walls and the historic video,” says Orem.
“So when you come in here to get something to eat and pause for a moment and look around, you also get some knowledge of your history,” notes Orem. “I think it’s very necessary, and I’m thankful for it!”
Serving Up History and Heritage
And that’s part of Hamlin’s mission. “While we have their attention getting the rolls and other baked goods, I want to be sure they see the history and legacy of the Pennsylvania Avenue community and the famous people who performed on The Avenue during its heyday,” says Hamlin.
He wants people to see what The Avenue was like when he was a kid. “When I grew up on Pennsylvania Avenue, whether you were a doctor, teacher, or ditch digger, we all lived in the same community. So we all had good images to emulate,” Hamlin reminisces. “And we could go to the Royal Theater and see a newsreel and a couple of movies, and then a live show would start with people like James Brown, The Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
“And there were no hotels for these Black entertainers, so they had the [Negro Motorist] Green Book to know where they could stay in the community. And they shopped along Pennsylvania Avenue and got their hair done at barbershops and hair salons along The Avenue. It was a very exciting place,” he exclaims.
Hamlin formed a nonprofit, The Royal Theater Community Heritage Corporation, in 2005. “The goal is to rebuild the Royal Theater, which should never have been torn down, and make that the anchor site to bring back economic development to Pennsylvania Avenue,” says Hamlin.
Together with the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Collaborative, he and his supporters put together the self-guided Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail, which has been popular with travelers from all over the world. Peak season at The Avenue Bakery is around Thanksgiving. “During that week, we sell between 200 and 300 dozen of Poppay’s Rolls and lots of sweet potato pies,” says Hamlin.
The bread pudding and sweet potato muffins with raisins and walnuts are also a hit. Hamlin also has a busy season during the warmer months from May through September when he hosts the summer music series, “A Taste of Jazz @ The Avenue Bakery.” Hamlin explains, “The free concerts are held in our courtyard to the side of the bakery, and it gives people another reason to come to Pennsylvania Avenue and it’s a way to give our local musicians a stage.” Along with the baked goods, soul food is served along with wine.
Hamlin, along with the late Ray Haysbert of Black-owned Parks Sausage, formed the project to build The Royal Theater and Community Heritage Center. “The Royal Theater would be the anchor, and it would also have a jazz center, a sit-down restaurant, ethnic shops and an incubator for entrepreneurs,” says Hamlin. “And it would stand on the site where the Royal Theater was located. Currently, just a part of the original theater’s marquee stands there now.”
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Hamlin has tried to get some famous people to buy into the project, like Oprah, who used to be a news anchor in Baltimore. He sent her a letter with his Poppay’s Rolls but didn’t get a response. He also reached out to Tyler Perry, noting that if the Royal Theater was rebuilt, he could have some of his films debut there.
But Hamlin isn’t giving up hope. In the meantime, he’s planning to work with his former junior high school, which is now Booker T. Washington Arts Academy, to train young people in the baking business.
“People have asked me to open my bakery in other communities in Baltimore that are considered to be safer, but I’m staying here and investing in the community I grew up in,” Hamlin asserts. He’s even written a book, “On A Roll: A Baker’s Recipe to Revitalize Baltimore’s Historic Pennsylvania Avenue,” which talks about his life growing up on Pennsylvania Avenue and his hopes for the street’s future.
Customer Clarence Horsey of Baltimore’s Pikesville community adds to the sentiment, “Pennsylvania Avenue was IT back in the day, and I think Mr. Hamlin opening The Avenue Bakery here is the first step to revitalizing the area.”
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And while putting freshly baked goods into people’s stomachs, Hamlin wants to get it baked into people’s heads that it’s not too late for this historic community. And he’s bringing in more supporters one Poppay’s Roll at a time.
To keep up with what’s baking at The Avenue Bakery, visit its website, Facebook or Instagram pages.