Can you open this mysterious safe? Red Emma’s bookstore seeks safecrackers

Published 7/6/2023 4:46 p.m. EDT, Updated 7/19/2023 4:45 p.m. EDT

The locked safe sits among books on the second floor of Red Emma's on July 6, 2023.

Duck into the arched stone doorway of Red Emma’s bookstore in Waverly, climb the wooden steps to the second floor and behold a mystery.

Sandwiched between biographies and philosophy books stands an immense metal safe — just the right size to hide a magician, a body or a small fortune. No one knows what’s inside. The safe is locked and appears to have remained so for years, if not decades.

“It is extremely, extremely heavy — so heavy we’re honestly not sure how they got it into the building and up to the second floor,” said John Duda, part of the cooperative that owns and works at Red Emma’s. “There’s no way we’re ever getting it out of here. And we also don’t have the combination.”

So the Red Emma’s crew this week extended an invitation to Baltimore on Twitter: Come take a crack at the safe.

There are a few caveats: No drilling. Nothing destructive. Only old-fashioned lock-picking, please. And just during business hours.

If the contents are enticing, the lucky picker gets to keep half. And, if they’re “gross or cursed,” they wrote, you gotta keep it all.

It’s unclear just how old the safe is. It’s nearly 6 feet tall and about 3 feet wide. There are two metal handles, each stamped with numerals, and a metal dial etched with the numbers from 10 to 70. In gold letters toward the bottom is a logo for the York Safe & Lock Co. in York, Pennsylvania.

A website devoted to York Safe & Lock says that the company made safes from the 1800s until the 1940s and had an outpost in Baltimore.

Also unknown is when the safe arrived in the stone building at 32nd Street and Greenmount Avenue, just east of the Johns Hopkins University campus. The structure was built in 1920, according to state property records. In the 1940s, it operated as Hooper’s lunchroom and it was the site of desegregation protests in the 1960s, Duda said. Later, it housed an antique shop, Early Attic, and then sat vacant for many years before the Red Emma’s collective purchased the property last year and began renovating it.

This is the fourth and largest location for the radical bookstore, which started in a small storefront on St. Paul Street in Mount Vernon in 2004. From the start, the bookstore, which carries works about civil rights, queer theory and social justice, among other topics, has been owned by its employees. The current location sits across from the 32nd Street Farmers Market and next to Pete’s Grille. In addition to two floors of books, an adjoining property — which used to be a gay bar called Office Disco, according to Duda — is a coffee shop serving vegan food.

A few people have stopped by to give the lock a whirl, but none have had success, said Meg Berkobien, a worker-owner, on Thursday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, Ken “Analysis” Brown, another worker-owner, opined that it likely held money. “I’d bet there’s cash inside,” he said. “Maybe not a lot.”

But if his dreams were to come true, Brown said, the safe would contain original writings of Emma Goldman, the anarchist and writer for whom the bookstore is named, or essays by Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist who died in 1977.

Berkobien had a grislier vision of the content. “In my head, if I’m being honest, it’s a body,” she said. “But I’m also the resident horror person.”

She doubted that anyone would be able to crack the code. And that’s fine with her.

“I love a good mystery,” she said. “I’m happy with it never being opened.”

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