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 caf