On a late summer evening, a dozen students in their 20s and 30s take seats around an oversized picnic table and on rows of bleachers inside the Baltimore Museum of Art's geodesic dome. John Duda, one of the founders of Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse collective, prepares to lead tonight's class, "Urban Development as Counterinsurgency," but he can't start. The students keep arriving.
"The problem with starting everything 15 minutes late," jokes Kate Khatib, another Red Emma's collective founder, "is that people start showing up 15 minutes late for everything."
By 6:15 p.m., more than 20 students have turned out for the two-hour lecture, and the red-bearded Duda, in an engineer's cap, T-shirt, and slacks, begins chronicling the history of urban architectural development. The talk flows from city structure in the Middle Ages to the 1860s "clearing" of the streets of Paris, to the 1968 riots and present-day physical landscape of Baltimore. Inquiries arise about the nature of private development and eminent domain, gated communities, prisons, gentrification, ghetto containment, and highways that function as de facto boundaries.
"Look at Martin Luther King Boulevard," Duda says. "You can walk across at traffic lights—but it still cuts off West Baltimore from downtown and the Inner Harbor."
The class is part of a summer pilot launch of Red Emma's Free School, the latest project from the innovative team behind Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse in Mt. Vernon. The Free School offers no-tuition courses, taught by volunteers with expertise in the subject area—Duda, for example, is working toward a Ph.D. in intellectual history at Johns Hopkins—and are open to anyone. Teachers, including poets, activists, professionals, healing experts, bicycle mechanics, and bilinguals, teach classes like "Gurlesque A Go-Go: A Bold Trend in Contemporary Poetry," "The Five Element Theory of Chinese Medicine," "Radical Geography," "Basic Bicycle Mechanics," and "Home Energy Audit—On a Budget!"
Most classes are offered at "2640," a two-year-old joint cultural arts venture with St. John's United Methodist Church located at 2640 St. Paul St., but that's about to change. Before class, Duda announces that Red Emma's Free School has found a permanent home at 1323 N. Calvert St. that will be ready for the fall semester. Two separate rooms, he explains, with separate entrances, so classes may be offered simultaneously.
"A campus," Khatib says with a smile.
Another evening, two days after Duda's class, Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse bustles. The colorful space is jam-packed with books, pamphlets, and posters, and overflowing with patrons. The free public computer terminals are in steady use, customers sip Fair Trade coffee and work on personal laptops, friends meet for vegan sandwiches, and walk-ins stop by to peruse the shelves. At 8 p.m., a small audience arrives for a screening of the Vietnam-era anti-war film, Winter Soldier.
A week later, a larger crowd gathers at 2640 for the next in Red Emma's summer documentary series, Fresh, about alternatives to industrial farming. Other recent events include a screening of Live Nude Girls Unite!, an award-winning documentary about the organizing efforts of San Francisco strippers; a slideshow by author Jeff Perry based on his biography of turn-of-the-century Harlem activist Hubert Harrison; and performances by experimental orchestra Second Nature and singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson, who was featured on the Juno soundtrack.
Earlier this spring, Red Emma's hosted The City From Below, a three-day national organizing conference. In September, it hosted the Radical Bookfair Pavilion at the Baltimore Book Festival for the second straight year, scheduling Ralph Nader, Bill Ayers, and Amiri Baraka, among others.
As economic conditions force for-profit and nonprofit enterprises everywhere to make cuts or shut down, Red Emma's is expanding. Its events, combined with the year-round poetry readings, book signings, art openings, and concerts, mark the small bookstore-coffeehouse's five-year evolution into a thriving lefty hub.
The Free School project is the latest innovation from Red Emma's, which continues to thwart conventional capitalist wisdom and prove that radical ideals haven't disappeared—at least not in Charm City.
"Red Emma's has become absolutely indispensable for both activists and writers," says Dave Zirin, author of A People's History of Sports in the United States and sports editor for The Nation. Zirin, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., appeared at the Radical Bookfair Pavilion last year. "Everyone I meet there is generous, collaborative, and proudly nonsectarian," Zirin adds. "It's a store with a mission, and a mission worth supporting."
Red Emma's history dates back to 2004, when Fells Point radical bookstore Black Planet went under. Four employees—Duda, Khatib, Cullen Nawalkowsky, and Andrew Byrne—teamed with a few other like-minded locals and opened Red Emma's as a worker-owned and operated bookstore-coffeehouse.
"A great space, great rent, and a landlord who allowed us to do our project," says Khatib, explaining how Red Emma's got off the ground. "We came up with less than $10,000 to get started. No loans, no grants. And we got a lot of stuff donated."
Red Emma's original model was as a traditional—if there is such a thing—"infoshop," a storefront that serves to distribute anarchist, progressive, leftist books, magazines, posters, DVDs, and T-shirts. It took its name from Emma Goldman, one of the best-known U.S. anarchist activists from the early 20th century.
On its website, Red Emma's defines itself as a collective in which "the real management of the company is carried out in a directly democratic and egalitarian manner."
Today, prospective collective members serve on a trial basis, volunteering hours at the bookstore, attending organizational meetings, and working at various events until, and if, they seek and are approved for full-fledged collective member status.
"I think most of us thought there was at least a 50 percent chance we wouldn't survive a year," says Khatib, who met Duda while earning her master's degree at University of Amsterdam's School of Cultural Analysis and also works for the collectively-run AK Press. Based in Oakland, AK opened an office in Baltimore partly because of the groundwork laid by Red Emma's.
Khatib stresses that a key to Red Emma's staying power was an early commitment to creating a friendly local coffee shop vibe among the political literature, making sure neighborhood residents of all walks of life felt welcome. "We wanted foot traffic," she says. "That was important to keeping us afloat."
Collective members identify three missions for Red Emma's: to be an educational resource, as with the Free School; to create space in the city for other collective, radical, artistic, and educational projects; and to be a model and help other collective-minded folks get their own ideas off the ground—as they have helped the annual Baltimore D.I.Y. Fest and the collectively-run Baltimore Bicycle Works.
But, members stress, Red Emma's is not about proselytizing. "The Free School, like 2640, is not intended to be a platform for Red Emma's to espouse our beliefs but a platform for others," Khatib says. "Ideally, it's intended as a resource for those who want to teach and those who want to learn."
Red Emma's non-hierarchical model and anarchist philosophy are actually based on values a lot of people share, says Towson professor Paul Pojman, who has admired Red Emma's organization for years, and volunteers with the Free School.
"Personal responsibility, local organization, non-hierarchical methods," Pojman says, are concepts most people support. "Anarchy is not against order," he says. "It's against 'rule.' That's a big misconception." Pojman plans to teach "Anarchism as Social Practice," with others at the Free School this fall.
John Berndt, one of several collective owners of Waverly bookstore Normals, who is also an experimental musician and founder of the critically-acclaimed High Zero Festival, has performed several times at 2640. He describes Red Emma's evolution as "fascinating."
"I'm amazed by the cooperative spirit, intelligence, and reasonableness of the people there—and the high-caliber, intelligent, multi-faceted programs they present," he says. "And for them to collectively function as a well-run business is remarkable."
Red Emma's list of allies now includes everyone from the Baltimore Independent Media Center to the United Workers, which Red Emma's supported in its successful campaign for higher wages for Camden Yards employees.
The collective itself is growing too. Members and volunteers are an eclectic group of college and grad students, nine-to-fivers, union organizers, band roadies, and punks—those who work enough to have a place to shower and something to eat, as Byrne puts it.
"One member works at OSHA," Byrne says, referencing the federal agency that enforces health and safety regulations. "[Co-founder] Cullen [Nawalkowsky] tours nationally as a DJ. We even had a ex-military drill instructor. She was about five feet tall, but when she asked you to do something behind the counter at the cafe, you jumped."
Red Emma's founders have enjoyed watching other collectively-run businesses in Baltimore, like The Hexagon and Wham City, take root. "There is this kind of unexpected 'good thing' happening," says Byrne.
Along the way, Red Emma's members have helped Wooden Shoe Books, a decades-old Philadelphia infoshop, on their restructuring, and have also advised Leaflet Collective in Pittsburgh and the new, worker-owned Firestorm Cafe & Books in Asheville, NC.
But through all of its community-empowering, coalition-building, and collective-consulting, Red Emma's remains, at heart, a bookstore-coffeeshop. From its inception, the store has been a tourist destination for youthful travelers, bookstore aficionados, and radical activists.
"We've had people come in who knew Emma Goldman," says Khatib. "There are a lot of old revolutionaries out there. We've had parents come in with daughters they named after Emma Goldman who say they've heard about the store and just had to stop in."
Khatib still loves "seeing people's eyes open" when they first enter the cafe and see all the books and magazines that aren't on display at Barnes & Noble. Her biggest joy comes from watching new people get involved, she says, either in a Red Emma's project or their own endeavor.
"I like that people know us from all over, and come in when they're traveling, and that more and more authors call us if they're reading in Philadelphia, New York, or D.C., and say they want to do something here," Khatib says. "And that people from much larger metropolitan areas, like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, view Baltimore as a place where things are happening today."
The icing on the cake, Khatib says, is that even the local bureaucratic establishment, such as the Baltimore Office of Promotion & Arts, which contacted Red Emma's about hosting the Radical Bookfair Pavilion, respects the work it's done.
"In that way," Khatib says, "it's kind of nice achieving status as a cultural institution."