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Radical Baltimore bookstore Red Emma's plans expansion

Thursday - 2/7/2013, 8:16am  ET

Red Emma's is a bookstore and coffeehouse run by 14 collective members, all of whom are their own bosses. (WTOP/Natalie Plumb)
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Natalie Plumb, special to

BALTIMORE, Md. - The smells of coffee grounds and crisp paper fill the air. The shelves are stacked by the hundreds -- overflowing with ideologies and philosophies, comics and art -- and made by the hands that work here. The designs that fill the windows and counter are the product of an artist who is also a co-founder.

"A labor of love," Iris Kirsch it.

To the rest of Baltimore, this is Red Emma's.

The bookstore and coffeehouse is collectively owned by a number of workers -- now 14 - - and hosts events, discussions and operates on workplace democracy: the idea that workers can be their own bosses, engage in mature interaction and negotiate without a figurehead.

"I've been here for 38 years, and this is the best thing that's ever happened to Mt. Vernon," says Leroy Keltner, 68, a regular customer of the store in downtown Baltimore's Mt. Vernon district.

A tiny space that measures 800 square feet, Red Emma's is a place for thinkers, activists, coffee drinkers and the like. Any given weekday, 20 to 75 people frequent the business. More stream through on weekends, and often people stumble in for a cup of joe only to encounter political ideologies they never anticipated finding in a bookstore.

The workers, their history and their politics

They don't go by "employees" and certainly don't use the word "boss." They are "workers," says one of the eight original co-founders of Red Emma's, Kate Khatib. Four of those eight still work at the enterprise. Baltimore resident Khatib, 35, is one of them.

"Everyone who works behind the counter or volunteers their time has the potential to be an owner," Khatib explains.

Red Emma's started after former anarchist bookstore Black Planet Books in Baltimore's Fells Point district began losing business. Black Planet -- known as an infoshop, or community space -- operated in a similar way to Red Emma's, though Emma's does not "primarily identify as an anarchist bookstore," Khatib says.

She adds that the idea to create a place like Red Emma's formed six months after she moved to Baltimore and volunteered at Black Planet.

"We decided, 'This project isn't working, nobody ever comes here, we don't even want to really come here, let's shut this place down,' " Khatib says, speaking of the now-defunct Black Planet, which closed in 2003.

After brainstorming, in 2004, the eight Red Emma's co-founders and other volunteers opened in a better location in a house on 800 St. Paul Street. Today, Red Emma's stands not only as a bookstore and infoshop inspired by Black Planet, but also a coffeehouse and café.

Named after Emma Goldman, a feminist, anarchist and labor organizer during the first half of the 20th century, Red Emma's workers take pride in serving fair trade coffee, a menu of vegetarian and vegan foods and providing free computer access and wireless Internet for anyone who walks through their doors.

Because the collective is a closed shop, Red Emma's operates with the Industrial Workers of the World, and every worker belongs to the One Big Union, which the website describes as "union for all workers.

The store houses an impressive stock of books -- 6,500 to be exact -- on a tiny amount of shelf space. Though the books are mainly political and left-leaning, the genres range from historical fiction, poetry, graphic novels and social theory, to subjects that "most people know nothing about," Kirsch says.

That doesn't include the store's periodicals, radical pamphlets and self-published works.

"Every book on those shelves has been carefully chosen and curated," Khatib says.

Among the shelves, a book of Pablo Picasso's work sits next to a book by contemporary graffiti artist Banksy. Periodicals include "Mother Earth News," "Socialist Viewpoint" and "Bust." Karl Marx is featured as well as a Shi'ism portrait.

"Anything you could find in this bookstore you probably can order on Amazon," Khatib says. "What you're not going to get on Amazon is a bookseller who's going to talk with you about what you're trying to learn and then point you toward a set of books that are actually going to help you get there."

The business hosts a variety of "socially aware" and radical events that include film screenings, book talks, community meetings and political discussions. The store is covered in paraphernalia that promote rallies, boycotts, concerts and campaigns that align with Red Emma's ideologies and some ideologies workers don't agree with.

"Agreeing with our politics is not a prerequisite for patronizing our space," Khatib says.

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