In the midst of the pandemic, 31-year-old writer Mickie Meinhardt left her busy literary life in Brooklyn and moved back home to Ocean City, Maryland. During lockdown, she decided to open the resort town’s only bookstore, the Buzzed Word, on the edge of the North Ocean City neighborhood. This cozy space doubles as a natural-wine bar, and the majority of books it stocks are by writers of color, including works in translation from around the world. The shop supports the local LGBTQ community as well — it even planned the city’s first Pride event in June.
Meinhardt and I met in 2015, when she enrolled in the MFA fiction program I teach at the New School in New York City. At the time, she was working on a novel that examined the role women have played in building Ocean City since the late 19th century. It’s a tradition that lives on: today, the city hosts a large community of young, creative, mutually supportive female entrepreneurs.
“I’ve talked with other small business owners about how exciting it is to bring something new, and inject some culture, to the place where we grew up,” Meinhardt told me. “We want to see this place grow.” Curious to learn more, my husband and I booked a room for a long weekend at Aloft Ocean City, which had a balcony view of the sparkling Assawoman Bay.
On one level, little has changed since the barrier-island fishing village became a resort in the 19th century. For families and spring breakers, there are waves to play in, a boardwalk to stroll, taffy to eat, and funnel cakes and ice cream as far as the eye can see. Fires burned down the old Victorian hotels, but the architecture still has a nostalgic feel, with downtown’s low-slung motels taking you back to the 1960s and 70s. Uptown, a 21st-century Atlantic City vibe pervades, with high-rise condos and hotels. Though the year-round population is only 7,000, some 3 million tourists pass through every year, which means there’s plenty of high-end dining for those who tire of the deep fryer. At the somewhat formal Hobbit Restaurant I had the best crab cakes of my life, while Spain Wine Bar served us tapas that would draw a crowd in Madrid.
But for me, the greatest pleasure of the trip was hanging out with Meinhardt and her friends. They include Linda Barragán, the 29-year-old proprietor of Casita Linda, a Mexican café and bakery open for breakfast and lunch. Barragán serves both tourists and locals, including a small Latin American community, and the menu is based on dishes her mother, Rosa, cooks at home. Lucky for us, Rosa was in the kitchen when we stopped by. We loved the chilaquiles and the mañanitas, a plate of scrambled eggs, handmade tortillas, avocado slices, and refried beans topped with queso fresco. Hair still wet, Meinhardt came in after her morning surf for tepache, a fermented pineapple drink, and a double espresso. She and Barragán traded notes about neighborhood goings-on, while Barragán’s husband arrived on a break from his day job as an engineer to tackle the morning’s pile of dishes.
We spent the rest of the day on Assateague Island, a national park just a 20-minute drive away, sunning, listening to the surf, and hiking around until we spotted a group of beautiful wild ponies. Meinhardt told me they occasionally raid campgrounds, Yogi Bear–style, looking for human-grade snacks. Back in Ocean City that evening, one of Meinhardt’s pals, Haley Norris of Palm Picnics, set up a beautiful spread for us in Meinhardt’s midtown backyard. The table setting, surrounded by pillow seating, included dried floral arrangements, candles, and a charcuterie board. Two excellent bottles came from the Buzzed Word: a sparkling pét-nat Chardonnay from Neu Cellars in Michigan, and a fabulous Grolleau Noir called Ouech’ Cousin, from French natural-wine maker Le Batossay.
In need of rehydration the next morning, we checked out three more small businesses owned by women. The sights and smells of the lovely fresh and dried floral arrangements at Inner Bloom reawakened our spirits, and we picked up some sweet lip mint lip balm from their apothecary. Farther down the main drag, we popped over to Real Raw Organics Kombucha Brewery & Café we detoxed with orange-cranberry kombuchas. Sharing the same block, the bohemian Ish boutique sells beachy, moderately priced women’s wear and jewelry. When asked why the store didn’t carry bathing suits, the clerk explained: “We don’t want to be in competition with the people across the street.” The local camaraderie lives on.
A version of this story first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Ocean City in Motion.”