A twist to the left. Two turns to the right. A bang, a thump, a click.

For weeks, people have been jimmying an antique safe at Red Emma’s bookstore in Waverly, trying to coax the massive metal box to reveal its secrets. On Friday, the doors of the safe swung open at last.

The safecracker ― or yeggman, in the parlance of the profession — was Rick Ammazzini of Winnipeg, Canada. The 46-year-old had seen Red Emma’s staff issue a challenge online for safecrackers in early July.

The doors of a safe found in Red Emma’s swung open after the safe was cracked by Rick Ammazzini of Winnipeg, Canada. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

The safe was in the stone building at the corner of Greenmount Avenue and 32nd Street when the Red Emma’s collective purchased the space last year. The building dates to at least the 1920s and has housed a lunch counter and antiques shop, among other businesses. The age of the safe was unclear, but it must be at least 75 years old, since its manufacturer went out of business in the late 1940s.

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Ammazzini, a bus driver who taught himself to crack safes a dozen years ago, raised $1,300 online to fund his trip to Baltimore. He arrived Wednesday and got to work inspecting the dial of the safe on the second floor of the radical leftist bookshop.

“I had to touch this dial for about 10 hours,” said Ammazzini.

Ammazzini said that between each pair of numbers on a dial lock there are four subtle notches only an experienced yeggman can feel. Ammazzini spent hours exploring the gaps between each of the digits on the lock until he arrived at the three-digit combination.

The lock was partially broken, which slowed the process of deciphering the combination, Ammazzini said. If it had been functioning normally, he could have opened it in about an hour, he said.

Co-owner Ken “Analysis” Brown opens the safe for the first time in Red Emma's on Aug. 11, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Ammazzini opened the safe late Thursday evening, but the collective of Red Emma’s worker-owners decided to wait to inspect the contents until Friday morning. Several staff members, visitors and members of the media arrived for the big reveal.

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As the crowd waited breathlessly, Ken “Analysis” Brown, one of Red Emma’s worker-owners, removed a layer of blue tape and swung open the doors.

Inside the safe was ... nothing. Well, not entirely. Brown bent closer to the dusty shelves inside and slid open four small wooden drawers.

Upon closer inspection, the safe contained four paper clips, a rubber band, a torn label for a bottle from the Cresta Blanca Winery and a paystub for a Helen Davidson, an employee of “University Dining, Inc.,” perhaps a contractor for nearby Johns Hopkins University.

There was no year on the yellowed paystub, but it showed that Davidson took home $5.69 for 20 hours of work for a week in late February.

The safe was empty besides an old pay stub, a label from a wine bottle and a key that opened another compartment — also empty — in Red Emma's on Aug. 11, 2023. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

But wait. As so often happens in life, solving one mystery revealed another. Among the wooden drawers was a metal compartment emblazoned with a star-like design. It was locked.

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As Ammazzini prepared to pick that lock, a TV camerawoman discovered a tiny metal key in one of the drawers. Brown slipped it into the lock and turned.

The inner compartment opened to reveal ... another wooden drawer. Also empty.

Although there was no pile of gold or trove of secret documents inside the safe, the mood in the bookstore was joyful. Brown said the collective members would meet to decide what to do with the safe. Perhaps stock it with books or a special display or just let visitors inspect it.

From her perch at the front desk, Red Emma’s collective member Meg Berkobien said she preferred the safe as an unsolved mystery. Yet, she said, the safe brought joy to the bookstore this summer.

“It’s been exciting to see everyone coming in,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’re a community space and this is the perfect way to bring in the community.”

julie.scharper@thebaltimorebanner.com

Julie Scharper is a news enterprise reporter who writes about interesting people, places, trends and traditions in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. She seeks to answer the question: What does it mean to be alive in this time and place? 

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