Spencer Compton splits his time between Red Emma’s bookstore and café.
What should a suburban mom like me wear to Red Emma’s? Steve Madden combat boots? Nerd glasses and a babushka? As I head to the left-wing co-op bookstore’s hyped new Station North location, I fear a repeat of my first visit when it was still located in Mount Vernon. Maybe I’m paranoid, but when I stepped into that dark, cramped space to kill some time, I felt like the word bourgeoisie was tattooed on my forehead.
Upon entering Red Emma’s sleek new headquarters at 30 W. North Ave., where Cyclops Books used to be, I start to relax a bit. With its sky-high ceilings, cool gray walls and enormous picture windows, the redone Emma’s is five times the original in size and at least 10 times more attractive. It’s easy to feel anonymous and comfy here.
Founded in 2004 by a handful of social justice and labor organizers and anarchist/activist bookworms, the 100-percent worker- owned organization opened doors here in October, having plotted their ambitious move since 2008. Back then, when many indie bookstores were languishing, Red Emma’s—named for Russian-born feminist/anarchist/ Jewish atheist Emma Goldman—found themselves selling stronger than ever. They also found it nearly impossible to seat everyone who wanted a spot at the store’s numerous politically relevant readings and lectures.
Just recently, more than 100 folks showed to hear Craig Steven Wilder, chair of MIT’s history department, talk about his new book, “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.” Obviously, this store pulls a smart crowd. Glancing around, I notice half a dozen middle- aged intellectuals who don’t dye their hair.
Casey McKeel, Kate Khatib and Lanie Thomas serve up some transparently traded coffee and vegan muffins from their new kitchen.
Before I have a chance to become intimidated by their lack of dye or the diehard book selection—“Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire catches my eye as I hunt my bag for my Coach wallet—one of the 16 owner/ workers, Casey McKeel, 27, greets me politely. She hands me a complimentary cup of Maya Vinic roast, a flavor she picked up in Mexico to include in her Thread Coffee line, a brand she partners with Red Emma’s café.
The brew’s delicious. And the fact that Casey’s business model operates under “transparent trade” guidelines (think free-trade-on-speed) helps me wash down my liberal guilt with an audible ahhhhhhh.
A tasty improvement: the bookstore now features its own vegan restaurant with breakfast, soup and sandwich recipes whipped up by co-owner Melanie Thomas, 37, formerly exec chef at critical darling Great Sage in Clarksville. (The tofurkey melt and vegan grilled cheese sound satisfying on this brisk day, but I’m on duty.)
While McKeel shares a bit about her political philosophies, I’m struck by her great bangs and super-stylish jewelry. I wonder if she finds me tragically unhip, but maybe that’s just the paranoia/guilt
complex/intimidation factor talking?
She describes herself as an anarchist, and it occurs to me that even anarchists can wear eyeliner. Good for her. When she tells me that Red Emma’s is her primary source of employment, as it is for several of her
fellow co-owners, most of them in their 20s and 30s, I do wonder how she can afford her awesome baubles and asymmetrical shag—not that I have the nerve to ask.
All co-owners earn $11/hour, per their philosophical agreement, from the chef to the book buyer to the barista. Perhaps McKeel barters coffee for cuts? (Some of the construction labor that rebuilt the space was donated.)
“The idea of a co-op is nothing new,” McKeel reminds me. She joined forces with Emma’s in 2013. “It’s starting to grow in popularity as so many people are having to work multiple jobs. You might as well be working for yourself as well as somebody else.”
“Do you ever get bored?” I blurt, looking around at the shelves of 7,000 extremely important texts.
“No, there’s always so much to do,” she says. “That’s where it’s different being an owner. You just made a million drinks—now there’s a break, so how about we come up with a new way to talk about our coffee? Every stride you make is a reflection of you.”
“Almost everybody’s got something else they do on the side,” adds founding member Kate Khatib, 36, an earnest woman with beautiful brown eyes, who joins us at the table. “I teach part-time at MICA; some work at farmers’ markets; some teach; some are union organizers. It has been this way since the beginning.”
But one of Emma’s goals, she adds, is to create a prosperous, co-owned and operated business that can sustain its workers on a full-time basis.
“Does this seem like, well, a very realistic venture long-term?”
“I don’t know what that means,” she tells me for the third time in our brief exchange, and I feel like I’m back in philosophy 101. (Khatib holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Hopkins.)
“People can make it…on $11 an hour?” I ask.
Khatib acknowledges the plan may not be achievable in the end, but she quit her full-time editing job in 2013 because she wants to work at Emma’s more—and she’s committed to the vision (if not the “venture”).
“Baltimore City has a living wage of 11 bucks an hour,” Khatib says. “Whether it’s sustainable…I think it’s really hard to say whether I or anybody else will stay at Emma’s for the next 10 years, but I want it to be a possibility.”
I take a break to head to the restroom, where I have to smile over a sign above the sink—“Workers Must Wash Hands”—that has been doctored to read “Proletariat Must Wash Hands.”
I wonder, as I eyeball myself in the mirror, “Could I ever go back to my Russian communist roots and hack working here, if I really, really believed in it?”
Out in the stacks, I meet Spencer Compton, 26, who works no outside gigs (but does front a post-punk band called Et Al.) and splits his Emma’s time between the café and bookstore. Compton says the store embraces “the anarchist concept of an egalitarian workplace and the whole idea that there’s no boss or management.”
Bingo. No boss. My face lights up when he talks. Maybe I’m an anarchist in part?
Certain things appeal to me about this no-manager ethos. (I’ve been told I have a problem with authority.) Since Red Emma’s is a worker collective, everything is decided by consensus. Oh, and to join up, each member must put down a $1,000 ownership share—or, as most choose, agree to have a small amount deducted from their weekly paychecks over the first year of their employment. If they leave, that money is theirs to take with them.
I fork over $2 for a to-die-for vegan berry muffin and continue to peruse the titles on the shelves. It’s neat to see that Cullen Nawalkowsky, 37, the chief book buyer—a slim, smiling redhead with heavy spectacles and a bushy beard—stocks all sorts of things anybody might like to read. The selections by Foucault and Studs Terkel and Angela Davis are paired with cookbooks and quirky kids books and Dover Thrift lit classics priced retro-low. (In the children’s section, a beautiful illustrated copy of “Wind in the Willows” shares a shelf with “My Two Grannies.”)
As I chew and review more titles, Nawalkowsky, who’s the friendliest crew member I’ve met, seems happy to chat. I ask him if he sees Red Emma’s as part of a growing trend or just a lark. (You can ask this guy anything—he’s naturally funny, and probably he’s the one who sneaked in and changed the bathroom sign.)
He tells me there are some good models for success out there. For example, the gluten-free flour used in the muffin I’m eating comes from a worker-owned company called Bob’s Red Mill, and Twin Oaks Community Foods supplies the café’s tofu. Meanwhile, the University of Baltimore Community Development Clinic has assigned Red Emma’s two student lawyers to study the national worker cooperative trend up close and provide legal advice whenever the collective needs it.
Besides, he explains, the store is getting great traffic since they relocated. Their social media following has multiplied exponentially. Kids from MICA and Hopkins are making regular stops at all points Station North. People are attending classes in the attached Free School classroom, where Nawalkowsky himself leads a regular critical reading group. But, according to Khatib, folks from the community are welcome to come in and teach classes about just about anything there. (So far, no crazies to make them regret that policy.)
I try to imagine Nawalkowsky in 10 years, still trim, still bearded—still here? Perhaps. He, too, has scrapped his full-time DJ and party promoter gig for the lit life. It occurs to me that a card-carrying Baltimore DJ might be accustomed to getting by on a little less. Maybe that’s one reason he’s so svelte.
When Nawalkowsky pulls out his iPhone and offers to show me his sales figures since the store’s move, I feel like a total capitalist pig: “Yes, please! That would explain a lot.”
I’m impressed to note that book sales, which account for about one-third of the store’s profit margin, have risen from $1,000/week on average in 2012 to $4,000/week since October 2013, the month of the collective’s grand reopening.
“Sometimes it’s $1,000 a day,” he says. “No week has been less than $3,000.”
We agree, Nawalkowsky and I, that Ursula K. Le Guin is a phenomenal writer—he’s got a selection of her sci-fi—and I now think I can ask something nosier.
“Cullen, will you order books for people?” I ask. “I mean, say, if I wanted the new Barbara Kingsolver from you?”
“Of course,” he says. “I wonder if I have that.”
“But would you order any books for anyone who came in?” I ask.
“Sure, we want to be a space that functions as a café and bookstore regardless of your political orientation,” he tells me. “That said, we might not order the complete works of Glenn Beck. We also want to provide a home for the marginalized—we’re going to prioritize that. For Glenn Beck, I might say, ‘Go to Amazon.’”