“It’s been an incredible experience seeing how much we’ve progressed,” Clayton Conn says. “I’ve been here before those doors even opened.”
On the corner of Saint Paul’s and East Madison Street in Baltimore, Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse is hard to miss. Conn says the collectively owned and operated info shop recently celebrated eight years of business.
“I was young when I first got involved,” Conn explains, “and I wanted to be a part of something active in the community.”
Red Emma’s door sits at the bottom of a small stairway, away from the street. Entering the bookstore coffeehouse feels like entering a smaller knit community within the Mount Vernon neighborhood. The shop fits cozily into one room, stocked with a wide range of books while the coffee counter sits in the center.
Red Emma’s is similar to a hub for activism. Projects throughout the community advertise within the shop by placing pamphlets on the rack near the door, as well as flyers posted on every wall and on the cashier counter. Pictures of famous authors, stickers with project slogans and poem lyrics all decorate the shop. There are tables for customers to sit down and read and on the left wall sit three computers with free wifi access.
To understand what types of books are found at Red Emma’s, it’s important to know who Emma Goldman was and still is to this community. This project was named after Emma Goldman, a well-known activist from the beginning of the 20th century. Goldman was a feminist, anarchist and labor organizer. Several of Goldman’s essays and speeches are available through Red Emma’s website, to remind visitors of her important ideals.
“Info shops are supposed to be an inner radical education source and our version of that is this bookstore,” says Spencer Compton, who has worked with Red Emma’s the past three years.
Compton became involved with Red Emma’s after graduating college at Mica. He wanted to stay in the Baltimore area, had participated in activist projects before and wanted to get involved in this project.
“Red Emma’s is collectively owned and operated by our members,” says Compton, “which means that if you’re a member, you co-own the space and co-manage the space. We don’t have any employees, no bosses, we all collect dividends of the profit, or percentages rather.”
There is a difference between a co-operation and the system Red Emma’s stands on.
“We run on a consensus basis,” Compton explains, “that would be the distinction between say going into something like a cooperative. If it was a co-operative, it would be more of a majority rules decision making.”
He continues to explain that co-operatives typically work with groups of a hundred to a thousand people. But currently, Red Emma’s has about thirteen to fourteen members.
“You wouldn’t want to sit down with a group of more than a hundred people to try and meet a hundred percent consensus agreement” he elaborates. “That would take hours and years. But with our small group, we work with a consensus agreement.”
Red Emma members meet every Sunday night at seven p.m., right in the shop space. The first Sunday of each month is closed to the public, intended only for members. But every other meeting is open for the outside community, whether people wish to simply listen or present their idea for a new activist project.
Beyond working shifts to serve as baristas or help customers search for books, members join committees.
“We have an events committee, books committee, supply committee,” he explains. “Just mundane things and aspects of the store to do in small groups of people so we don’t all have to talk about latte cups”
Representatives from projects and groups usually give ten to fifteen minute speeches on Sunday nights to bring awareness to the causes and its purpose. Compton says there are two main sister projects, that came about from Red Emma’s support.
“2640 space is a partnership between some collective owners here and a Methodist church on St. Paul’s street- like two miles up in Charles Village,” he explains. “The space on the weekends is used for weddings, that’s how people subsidized it but we use it for conferences too. We just held a huge conference there with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans last week. We also use it for concerts and different things.”
Most Baltimoreans are familiar with the other sister project- the Baltimore Free School.
“I like when we have events here,” Compton says, of his favorite part about working at Red Emma’s. “It can be a small screening or a book talk and it brings a lot of people to the store and makes for great conversations.”
Red Emma’s ability to grow as a community of its own is clearly dependent on those core people involved before the shop was built. Though not all of the first people are still a part of Red Emma’s, Conn greatly respects all of his co-workers.
“Everyone involved and all of those core people, I have such respect for,” Conn says. “It’s really a group of good people, who are inspiring and take great concern in fighting the good fights.”
Compton says working for Red Emma’s is definitely a labor of love.
“Everybody here has to have other jobs,” he explains. “But this change could make the job a working wage and livelihood of the people working here.”
Within the near future, Red Emma’s could be moving to a new location. The project will stay within the neighborhood but hope to have a larger venue. Red Emma’s is also potentially joining up with new coffee roaster in town called Thread Coffee, which is a direct transparent trade and Compton explains it as a “step or two ahead” of free trade in practices.
“We’re looking to link up projects like that more on the business side,” Compton says, thinking of the future. “But I can’t disclose where we’re moving because we haven’t signed any leases yet.”
Whether someone wants to join the project or not, Conn suggests everyone comes by a meeting.
“Having the experience of witnessing or observing,” Conn says, “not even at one of our meetings, but just here in the shop, you get to see the model at work. A model that we have learned a lot from and a model that we’ve been trying to develop and share with others. The experience is amazing and worth it for anyone.”