The impending move of a beloved Baltimore bookstore and restaurant to the Waverly neighborhood is raising hopes of revival along the tired Greenmount Avenue commercial corridor and nearby blocks.
Red Emma’s, the anarchist-inspired cooperative, is purchasing a pair of vacant buildings to create what members and founders hope will be a “permanent home” as it leaves the Mount Vernon location it has occupied since 2018.
In preparation, Red Emma’s staff have been reaching out to their new community, learning what their neighbors want and how the cooperative can contribute to a sense of place. Co-founder Kate Khatib said the pandemic’s effects on the restaurant and bookshop’s operations gave member-owners an opportunity to re-evaluate its mission and future.
“We were working hard to really make this business successful, but we were not leaving ourselves enough time to do the deep community-focused work that Red Emma’s is known for and what was really important to us,” Khatib said.
While she said the Cathedral Street space “didn’t work for what we truly are,” the Greenmount Avenue buildings offer greater possibilities. Red Emma’s is buying properties at 3128 Greenmount Ave. and 415 E. 32nd St., which still bears the signage “Early Attic” from an earlier use. The building is a familiar backdrop to the popular 32nd Street Farmer’s Market.
With 11,000 sq. feet of usable space between the two buildings, the cooperative plans to eventually open a bookstore in the Early Attic building and operate the restaurant in the shell of a former cocktail lounge on Greenmount Avenue.
The Baltimore Free School and a meeting space would occupy the basement level Greenmount Avenue space.
Councilwoman Odette Ramos says Red Emma’s move to her 14th District is going to be “game-changing” for the Greenmount business corridor.
“Red Emma’s has a stellar reputation of not only being a great business serving their customers, but also their culture and vibe totally fits with what’s here,” she said. “I’m so excited they chose this area to really grow the work that they’ve been doing, and do it here in Waverly, Abell, Better Waverly.”
The cooperative is approaching the move with the neighborhood, established businesses and residents in mind.
“We’ve tried, in developing this plan, to be very intentional to talking to all of the businesses already located in Waverly and are located along Greenmount Avenue to make sure they’re supportive so that as we all grow, we’re all growing,” Khatib said.
A few blocks to the south, Tia Hamilton , owner of the Urban Reads community bookstore, lauded the cooperative for reaching out to gauge her view of the potential move ahead of the purchase.
“They are community-oriented and community-based, and I think they are going to keep that up,” Hamilton said. “Our little community has been nothing but amazing. We’ve been great, and with Red Emma’s coming, its’ going to be a boost not just for me, but for them as well.”
Khatib says they’re looking to open a small bookshop and café in the Greenmount location as early as October, and is anticipating meeting with neighbors and starting to connect with the community.
“We’ll have a small browsable bookstore, and essentially a ‘Red Emma’s lite,’ a lot of coffee, sandwiches, salads,” Khatib said.
Building out the restaurant will be a second phase, creating a “multi-level community coffeehouse, bookstore and social center,” planned to open by the end of the year.
The final phase will require a full interior rehabilitation of the Early Attic building. Khatib says the building is important to the community because of its iconic look and history, and they want to get the overhaul right.
“I lived in this city my whole life. For me coming up in Baltimore, Greenmount and 33rd was my Time Square,” said Sonja Merchant-Jones, an area resident who chairs the Better Waverly Community Organization. “To see someone come and add to that memory that’s inclusive, it just means a whole lot to me. Red Emma’s is doing just that.”
Merchant-Jones says the community “hit the jackpot” with Red Emma’s move, and she hopes it’s a jumpstart to other businesses putting down roots in the area.
“Neighbors are very pleased that the two large buildings Red Emma’s has purchased will be occupied. They have been vacant for several years,” said Maureen Daly, president of the Abell Improvement Association. “Neighbors think it is great to see that corner brought back to life all week long.”
Khatib says the cooperative has big plans for the business district and wants the productive capacity of those buildings once they’re renovated and developed to return wealth not just to people that own them but to residents and neighbors.
The cooperative is currently exploring different models of shared ownership or community control to ensure that Red Emma’s makes a lasting positive impact on its forever home.
“This feels like an opportunity for Baltimore to be a leader to developing and deploying a different type of economic development models that we need in this city,” Khatib said.
Red Emma’s is named for activist Emma Goldman, best known for her contributions to anarchist philosophy and leftist organizing in the early 20th century. Radicalized after the Haymarket affair in Chicago, Goldman was involved in worker rights and women’s rights, as well as antiwar and anti-imperialism especially amid the lead up to the U.S. entering World War I.