Ken Brown pumped up the crowd as he welcomed them to a book discussion with Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower who spent nearly a year in solitary confinement for leaking confidential government data and recently released a memoir about her time in the military.

“I’m not getting started until I hear from some anti-militaristic, anti-imperialist people in here,” said Brown, who also goes by the nickname Analysis and is a spoken word poet and employee co-owner of Red Emma’s bookstore.

Manning was speaking at 2640 Space, a worker collaborative at 2640 St. Paul St. that hosts grassroots events. In 2007, Red Emma’s collaborated with St. John’s Methodist Church to start the space so that the church could keep their historic building and 2640 could host grassroots events. The crowd clapped and sat in contemplative silence as Brown recited a searing spoken-word poem indicting the military industrial complex, asking “What will she say when you beat her?”

The worker-owners are in their final stages of opening their new location at 3128 Greenmount. The main floor has the bar, food and seating while the downstairs has the book store with a variety of books organized by subject matter that Red Emma’s is known for. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

Red Emma’s events have always been unapologetically radical. The books on the back table at the Manning event featured titles like “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Trans (But Were Afraid to Ask)” and “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.” A friendly masked face was behind the table ready to accept all forms of payment for people’s radical education.

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As the city’s only co-op (owned and operated by its workers) bookstore, cafe and meeting space in Baltimore, Red Emma’s has been a steadfast staple in the community since it opened in 2014. The bookstore has had three locations: St. Paul Street near Eager Street in Mount Vernon; North Avenue and Maryland Avenue;and Cathedral Street near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Last week the bookstore moved into what it’s calling its “forever home” in the Waverly-Abell neighborhood. They recently purchased a building at 415 E. 32nd Street and a storefront at 3128 Greenmount Ave. to create a multilevel community coffeehouse, bookstore, and social center. They had a soft opening at the Greenmount location and the second building is expected to be completed sometime in 2023; it will increase the bookstore capacity by about one-third.

Books pictured at Red Emma's
A selection of books from Red Emma’s. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

With the move, Red Emma’s will own the property and see a significant cost savings because they will be paying a mortgage instead of rent. Rising rent costs were a huge concern for the collective. Their mortgage will be about half of what their rent was at Cathedral Street.

They will join a community of diverse businesses, including Urban Reads Bookstore, Normals Books & Records, Peabody Heights Brewery, My Mamas Vegan, Pete’s Grille, and Local Color Flowers. They hope to work with these businesses to “reimagine a Greenmount Avenue commercial district that is community-focused and meeting the needs of the neighborhoods that border it,” Red Emma’s said on its website.

Red Emma’s was the first worker co-op in Baltimore — there are now 20 — and tries to support other similar businesses. It sourced the windows for its 32nd Street building from a worker co-op window factory in Chicago.

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The worker-owners are in their final stages of opening their new location at 3128 Greenmount Avenue. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

Visitors to Red Emma’s say they like the kinds of community building and conversation that’s possible in a radical bookstore.

Ryan Harvey, a musician and activist who moderated the talk with Chelsea Manning, recalled seeing a few military guys talking in Red Emma’s. “They were showing their friend like, ‘Hey these people aren’t against us, they’re against the war.’” For Harvey, that symbolizes the value of a public, political gathering space.

Nicole King, professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has held several events at Red Emma’s in the past, including work retreats, panels and book talks. She said she likes that the new space will be able to serve a diverse audience and not just those living in the “White L,” a term created by equity scientist Lawrence Brown to describe an area around the Inner Harbor and extending to wealthy neighborhoods in the north where mostly white residents live.

“Red Emma’s provides an essential space to read, think, organize and to be inspired by the amazing collective work this city can do,” King said.

Books featured at Red Emma's
Shelves of books and posters at Red Emma's. (Kaitlin Newman / The Baltimore Banner)

Maddie Wells, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins University, appreciates the openness of the newest space and likens the location to the previous North Avenue location. Red Emma’s still requires people to wear masks, which Wells said fits with the bookstore’s mission because many social factors contribute to the spread of COVID.

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“Not many restaurants have that, and it feels like [by enforcing masks] they’re true to their values,” Wells said.

Kate Khatib, Red Emma’s coordinator of finance and operations, said, “We had our first day of soft opening and we really saw no masks and we realized we have to make that clear to protect ourselves and our community.” During a tour of the new space, Khatib noted that policies and renovation decisions were made with worker comfort and safety as first priority.

During the soft launch, Red Emma’s will be open Wednesday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. They are still waiting on permits to upgrade their sprinkler system before increasing their café capacity. They have continued to host radical book talks with local authors and activists by using temporary permits from the city.

The updates to the building are taking longer than anyone in the collective anticipated. But they say the time investment is worth it for the collective to continue to bring grassroots talks to Baltimore.

Imani is an Arts and Culture writer with a background in libraries. She loves to read, hike and brag about her friends.

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