Radical Success Continues: Red Emma's Now Open in Station North
Collectively run bookstore and café is the latest addition to surging arts and entertainment district.
By Ron Cassie. Posted on February 10, 2014, 6:33 pm
Red Emma’s, Baltimore’s favorite radical bookstore and coffeehouse, has officially reopened in its new location at 30 W. North Ave.—the latest addition to the surging Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
Host to more than 1,000 events over the years—from films, lectures, readings, and live music to seminars and grassroots organizing efforts—the collectively run café has become a unique Charm City cultural institution since first opening in Mount Vernon a decade ago. In 2006, Red Emma’s launched the first annual Radical Bookfair and, in 2007, they began a partnership with St. John’s Church in Charles Village, using the space at 2640 St. Paul St. as a venue for cultural and political events. In 2009, Red Emma’s started the Baltimore Free School. And most recently, they've partnered with the collectively run Thread Coffee.
The move allows the bookstore to dramatically increase the number of titles it offers while also greatly expanding the amount of café seating. Plus, with the additional kitchen space, the menu will be growing, too. More in-house vegan baking, on-site coffee roasting, and soon more lunch and dinner entrée options, too.
Baltimore featured Red Emma’s in the magazine in 2009.
With the reopening of the café, we did an email interview with founding member Kate Khatib:
So, why did you guys move? I'm assuming because you can stock more titles, seat more people for speakers and films, etc., serve more customers in the cafe...
“The decision to move to a large space was a long time coming—we ran out of space about two years after we opened in the first location, but we weren't ready to really think about expansion, so we instead decided to proliferate into several additional spaces, which is how 2640 and the Free School came about. Over time, 2640 and the Free School developed into robust collective projects with their own organizing bodies, and we decided, especially after Thread [Coffee] joined the Red Emma's family of projects, that the time was right to do a major expansion of the primary Red Emma's storefront.
Of course, the goal was more space for books, more seating for customers, a home for larger events, and enough room to build a full-scale commercial kitchen so that we can do all of our own vegan baking in-house and significantly expand our menu, but we also wanted to create space for Thread to roast coffee onsite, and for the Free School to have a dedicated classroom space inside the main Red Emma's location. And, I think we see that our instinct that we needed a space like a vastly expanded Red Emma's in Baltimore was right: yesterday afternoon, every single one of our 78 seats in the main dining area was filled, and we had folks browsing the books, and folks meeting in the Free School classroom. It's basically a dream come true!
Now, we just have to scale up what we offer in terms of food and drinks, events, books, etc. to keep folks coming back time and time again.
How do you see the fit overall into what's happening in Station North?
“Having spent nine years on a pretty quiet corner in a residential neighborhood, it's exciting for us to be in a re-emerging arts and entertainment district where there's a lot going on. We're excited to be bringing some daytime traffic to the area, and, alongside longtime businesses like Station North Arts Cafe and others, to be providing a public place where people can spend time during the day, which is sorely needed in a neighborhood where there's so much of a focus on nightlife. The bookstore component in particular has been really well-received and appreciated by the folks we've met who are longtime residents of the area, and I think that really draws folks from the neighborhood in.
Speaking personally, I think the revitalization efforts along the North Avenue corridor are interesting. Our goal so far has been to watch and to learn about what's happening in the neighborhood, and to engage with and create space for folks who have been in the neighborhood for a long time, as well as to work closely with some of the newer residents—and businesses, projects—who are increasingly present in the area. Red Emma's works well as a kind of middle ground—we're comfortable in the Arts & Entertainment District, and definitely popular with the students and cultural producers who call Station North home—but we also work hard to create a public venue that anyone can use and feel comfortable in, provided they respect the rules of the space.
I hope in the years to come, as the revitalization of North Avenue continues, that we can be a place where neighborhood residents can come to share their concerns about what's happening around them, and that we can help to bring the development interests in the neighborhood to the table to address and learn from those concerns. Revitalization on North Avenue could be a fantastic opportunity for city development to work in partnership with residents, or it could become yet another casualty of gentrification. It's too early to tell exactly what direction things are going to go in, so we're watching and waiting to see where we can be the most useful in the fight for a participatory development process in the area.”
Do you see Red Emma's expanding into more of a restaurant-type lunch dinner menu?
“Definitely. We've been slowly scaling up the menu with new salads and sandwiches, and we'll be posting a job search for a new worker-owner with chef/cooking experience in the next couple of weeks. As we thaw out on our way towards spring, we'll be doing a series of special food events—starting with a vegan-friendly brunch—to give us a chance to flex our culinary muscles a little, and get a sense of what the fully functional restaurant will look and feel like.
Our goal is to have a full lunch and dinner menu with hot entrees and lots of sides and appetizers up and running by the end of the spring.”
Can you briefly describe the partnership with Thread Coffee?
“Thread Coffee was collectivized in 2012, and shared some membership with the Red Emma's collective from the start. Thread's mission is complementary to the Red Emma's mission—it's a project that's about transparency, that's about understanding the politics behind the coffee we drink, that's about working hard to guarantee that the farmers who grow and pick the coffee we drink here in Baltimore are paid a fair wage for their labor.
Right from the start, we knew that Thread and Red Emma's would have a long and fruitful relationship together, and when we sat down to talk about that, we realized that we had more to gain from bringing the projects together, instead of keeping them separate. So, later that year, Thread Coffee became a part of the Red Emma's family of projects—which includes Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse, The 2640 Space, The Baltimore Free School, and now Thread Coffee. We like to talk about Thread as the roasting arm of the Red Emma's project—the coffee we roast in the store is retailed under the brand name of Thread Coffee, but the same worker-owners who you see making lattes behind the counter are in many cases the folks who are also doing the roasting on other days of the week.
As Thread grows, we may eventually need to move some of the roasting operations offsite to a larger facility and hire worker-owners who work exclusively on the roasting part of the business (just like we have folks who work exclusively on books, or exclusively as cooks, etc.), but for now, we're really happy to have everything integrated together in our primary storefront.
Everything else, the Free School, the partnership with 2640, will continue, is that right?
“Absolutely. The expansion doesn't in any way change the larger partnership of the four Red Emma's projects, except that Thread and The Free School now share space with the Bookstore Coffeeshop. We're still a big happy family of four collectively run projects.”
Ron Cassie is a senior editor for Baltimore, where he covers the environment, education, medicine, politics, and city life.