Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse had hoped to fully open to kick off their Fall Events program, but the city permitting process has held up those plans. Photo by Ed Gunts.

“Red Emma” Goldman was a rabble rouser in her time – an early 20th century labor organizer, anarchist political activist and fiery speaker who drew huge crowds wherever she appeared.

Now the owners of Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse are making noise about the amount of time it’s taking to get the city permits they need to open their new location at 3128 Greenmount Ave.

In a message sent today to people on their mailing list, members of the worker-owned business said they had hoped to be fully open by now to kick off their Fall Events program, but it hasn’t turned out that way.

The business announced plans to move from 1225 Cathedral St. in Midtown to Waverly in the spring of 2021 and began construction several months later. Operators initially talked about opening at least part of the new location in early 2022, then spring, then summer and then fall.

“We thought this [Fall Events] program would come along with the grand opening of our gorgeous new cafe & bookstore space in Waverly,” today’s message said, “but our occupancy permit is currently being blocked by a city bureaucracy that’s working as hard as it can to make our lives hell by jerking us around, and throwing bureaucratic hoop after bureaucratic hoop at us. Hoops, we might add, that are not being applied to other nearby development projects.”

All summer, Red Emma’s operators have used social media to keep patrons abreast of their efforts to complete construction and open up. On Facebook, they showed photos of their progress and invited patrons to help test out equipment such as a new espresso machine. On Aug. 2, they posted that they passed the city health department’s inspection and had “just ONE MORE inspection to go!”

More than a month later, they still haven’t opened completely. In their latest message, the group questioned why it’s taking so long.

“We’re trying not to take it personally, but we have to wonder: Are we being deliberately targeted for political reasons? Maybe it’s an unaccountable bureaucrat with an axe to grind or a bias to satisfy? Or maybe our city is just so administratively broken that it reflexively works to thwart the efforts of people who want to invest in its future.

“Whatever the reason, we are getting tired of it—every day we’re blocked from opening is another day we are taking on debt keeping our worker-owners paid. But we set out to turn two buildings that have been vacant for over a decade into a thriving, worker-owned center for education, literature, and community, taking on literally millions of dollars in debt to make it possible—and we’re going to do it. No matter how many hoops they throw at us.”

Kate Khatib, one of the Red Emma’s operators, declined today to comment further.

Construction permits are taped inside the window at Red Emma’s. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Baltimore City Council member Odette Ramos, who represents Waverly, confirmed that the delay involves inspections.

“This is all about the requirement for sprinklers,” Ramos said in an email message. “Red Emma’s was told by DHCD [the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development] that their plan for a fire suppression system was OK. [The Fire Department] then said no, you have to get a huge pipe installed to get more water in for a proper sprinkler system.

“Red Emma’s said no way that’s going to take a million years and lots of money and we need to open, and by the way DHCD told us we didn’t have to,” Ramos continued. “I stepped in; the agreement is to have a temporary system and in a year make sure the full system is in place. In the meantime the BFD has to provide temporary event permits to allow for the events to happen. They are stalling on the event permits. This is a nightmare for Red Emma’s.”

Part of the holdup is a Catch 22, Ramos said. “Until they can get a temporary U and O [Use and Occupancy permit], which was the agreement, they have to get [temporary] permits to have events.” But “they can’t even apply for [event permits] until they get their occupancy permit, which they don’t have because of this sprinkler issue.”

Separately, the city’s liquor board last week approved Red Emma’s application for a liquor license, subject to passing liquor board inspections.

For now, Red Emma’s is moving ahead with a series of book talks and other in-person programs at 3128 Greenmount Ave. – without food or drinks.

Complete information is on Red Emma’s website at www.redemmas.org. The September lineup includes:

Sept. 13 at 7 p.m.: Raymond Craib presents “Adventure Capitalism” in conversation with Cullen Nawalkowsky, a founding worker-owner of Red Emma’s.

Sept. 15 at 7 p.m.: Stephanie Barber presents “Trail in the Woods” in conversation with writer and historian Alicia Puglionesi.

Sept. 22 at 7 p.m.: Psyche A. Williams-Forson presents “Eating While Black.”

Sept. 24 at 7 p.m.: M. E. O’Brien presents “Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072” in conversation with Ada Pinkson and Jason Harris.

Sept. 28 at 7 p.m.: Dorothy Roberts presents “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families – and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

One reply on “Red Emma’s operators express frustration over city permit process delaying the opening of new Waverly location”

  1. Why does this place keep moving? At least 4 times! Could it be that Emma wasn’t a Red? She was a self proclaimed anarchist. And became quite disillusioned with the Soviet’s version of Communism

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