When Casey McKeel began roasting coffee, she started with a drum roaster attached to a backyard grill behind her Waverly home. She’d grown up in the business. Her mother ran a café in her native Michigan and, as an undergraduate, she’d studied the impact of the coffee trade on communities where coffee is farmed and produced. In 2012, McKeel, who’d moved here two years earlier, launched Thread Coffee determined to build a democratically run, environmentally sustainable, fair and transparent trade operation.
A year later, Thread forged a relationship with Red Emma’s, the city's ever-expanding worker-cooperative bookstore, café, and venue—then in its original basement location on St. Paul Street. “That was before Red Emma’s moved to Station North, but it was looking for a larger space,” McKeel recalls. “We thought, ‘Why not share resources? We could roast in-house there and split a portion of the rent and licensing.”
This was hardly the first collaborative project for Red Emma’s, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this month. By the time Thread Coffee began its association with Red Emma’s, named for the turn-of-the-century immigrant, anarchist, and writer Emma Goldman, they had already spun off the collectively managed 2640 Space—the still-thriving destination for grassroots political and cultural events—in partnership with St. John’s United Methodist Church. And they had assisted in the launch of the city’s only worker-owned and democratically operated bike shop—Baltimore Bicycle Works. Thread Coffee was in a good hands.
Five years after incubating with Red Emma’s, Thread moved into its own roasting space and café inside the Open Works building in 2017. The same year, Food and Wine named them Maryland’s “Best Coffee.”
“We got to see how Red Emma’s functioned from the inside as a worker-cooperative, how they developed consensus around decision-making,” McKeel says. “That was a crucial learning experience.”
In today's Amazon-dominated, e-sales-driven book industry, if Red Emma’s had done nothing else beyond survive for the past decade and a half, it would be a remarkable achievement. Instead, it has evolved into a community hub and indispensable institution, hosting nationally renowned writers, activists, artists, and educators. They’ve organized the Radical Bookfair Pavilion, part of the Baltimore Book Festival, for more than a decade, attracting the likes of Amy Goodman, Amiri Baraka, and Ralph Nader.
They were the first to publish New York Times best-selling Baltimore author D. Watkins in print, putting his viral essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” together with other work into a zine format. They’ve provided a platform for acclaimed local photographer Devin Allen and the city’s award-winning youth poets from DewMore. Last summer, they moved back to Mount Vernon into a 9,000-square-foot building on Cathedral Street that once served as home to a jazz club run by Baltimore legend Ethel Ennis. In the process, they’ve grown from a handful of worker-owners to a payroll of almost 30 people, all making a sustainable wage.
But the thing those at Red Emma’s are probably most proud of, co-founder John Duda says, is the something they’re less known for: how their inclusive, non-hierarchical project has helped spark and support a whole movement of worker cooperatives in Baltimore. “When we started, there was zero local guidance and zero local support for anyone trying to imagine how to own and run a business democratically,” Duda says. “We found ourselves not only figuring things out as we went along, but fielding lots of demand from people trying to follow in our footsteps.”
Beyond launching 2640, working with Thread, and their early advising role with Baltimore Bicycle Works, which recently opened a second shop in Belvedere Square, the Red Emma’s team has helped beloved ice cream makers Taharka Brothers in their ongoing shift to employee-ownership. They’ve assisted the immigrant women at the Mera Kitchen Collective—who hold pop-up events around the city and sell their international dishes at JFX Farmer’s Market—as well as the returning citizens at Core Staffing and the vegan food activists at Greener Kitchen.
In turn, those experiences, along with their own struggles raising capital from traditional banks, helped those at Red Emma’s understand the key role of cooperative-friendly finance. Eventually, it all led to the formation of the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy (BRED), which has now gone on to deploy close to $700,000 in “non-extractive” loans—loans paid back as a percentage of profits—to local worker cooperatives. When Duda and fellow Red Emma’s co-founder Kate Khatib (they married in 2015) arrived in Baltimore in 2003 to pursue PhDs in Intellectual History at Johns Hopkins University, they hadn’t thought about becoming, much less bankrolling, a new breed of entrepreneur. That’s what has happened, however.
“I think we got increasingly serious about the business the longer we were around, and as people started to take us more seriously,” chuckles Khatib after a recent packed house for a Q&A with D. Watkins and Baltimore Beat editor Lisa Snowden-McCray. “I can’t say we saw this coming or it was planned,” adds Khatib, who works half-time at Red Emma’s while also serving as BRED’s executive director.
“Probably half of us thought Red Emma’s would last a year on St. Paul Street and then we’d go on to something else.”
BRED’s first loan, $15,000 to Taharka Brothers, helped them get their famously neon pink ice cream truck repaired in time for the summer of 2016. A second loan enabled them to open their new scoop shop at the renovated Broadway Market. Another loan helped Thread finance a larger capacity coffee roaster to meet growing demand. BRED loans also allowed The Greener Kitchen to purchase equipment for a production facility and rental kitchen, and assisted Core Staffing with working capital to better serve its members.
“Red Emma’s is the poster child for worker-owned businesses, and we turned to them and BRED during what was a tumultuous time for us,” says Sean Smeeton, a Taharka Brothers co-founder. “We had an offer from an investor, but they wanted 51 percent of the business and control of the decision-making process. We didn’t want that. We wanted to empower the young black men that work for Taharka to become entrepreneurs.”
Darius Wilmore, Taharka Brothers’ creative director, adds Red Emma’s did a lot more than facilitate a loan, assisting in the technical work of restructuring the business. In particular, Khatib and Ro McIntyre, another former Red Emma’s worker-owner and BRED co-founder, “spent so much time at our building in Clipper Mill, guiding us, they practically worked here part-time,” Wilmore says. (“We did it for the ice cream,” McIntyre jokes later, “which is great.”)
As Red Emma’s has become a model for local cooperatives and others around the country—Firestorm Books & Coffee in Asheville, North Carolina, and Wooden Shoe Books and Records in Philadelphia, to name two—the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy has provided a template for a national network of similar loan funds, called Seed Commons. Baltimore is not alone in seeing its worker cooperative ecosystem grow in recent years. Cities including New York, Madison, Minneapolis, Oakland, Berkeley, Austin, and Cleveland have also begun to integrate worker cooperative support into their economic development strategies. (Briefly defined: Worker-owned co-ops are values-based enterprises that prioritize worker and community benefit. Workers are represented in leadership and manage the day-to-day through various management structures.)
“We turned to Red Emma’s and BRED during . . . a tumultuous time for us.”
In fact, the City of Baltimore recently awarded a potentially significant $47,000 Community Catalyst Grant to BRED to pilot a worker-cooperative “conversion” pipeline. That grant, operated in concert with the Baltimore Development Corporation, is designed to assist retiring business owners in transitioning ownership, if so inclined, to their employees. The “silver tsunami” of Baby Boomer retirements could cost Baltimore thousands of jobs if the children of those business owners, for example, don’t wish to take over those enterprises.
Given the cooperative ecosystem here, Duda says, owners may begin to realize that it’s becoming easier to retire “through an exit to workplace democracy” and more satisfying, in terms of their legacy, than selling to an equity fund that may kill off the business. Again, it’s not just Baltimore. Recognizing the possible dissolution of millions of small businesses, Congress in 2018 passed the Main Street Ownership Act to smooth the finance of business sales to employees. (Pointing to their own legacy, Red Emma’s will help host the biennial three-day Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy, presented by the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, at the University of Baltimore School of Law in mid-October.)
“Cooperatives take a while to get going, but the process of converting existing businesses should be a faster,” says Kristin Dawson, of the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corporation. Dawson and others note marginalized, low-income groups, often including immigrants, women, minorities, and the queer community—in other words, those without access to traditional capital—stand to benefit from the cooperative financing model.
Not that anyone expects to get rich from working at a cooperative. Baltimore Bicycle Works founder Josh Keogh’s salary was roughly $35,000 before he left after nine years for a position at the Arts & Ideas Sudbury School. The job came with health benefits, however, and given the seasonal nature of the business, 10 weeks vacation. “It’s a normal bike shop in a lot of ways, except all decisions are made in an open and transparent way, and we didn’t have the seasonal ups and downs of hiring people and then laying them off,” Keogh says. Nor should anyone believe working in a cooperative business is easier than working in a more typically structured business. Building consensus around decision-making is, by nature, a cumbersome process.
That said, studies show co-ops are often more productive than traditional enterprises. Equally important, they can prove transformative for work-owners. Whitney Jones, who’s been in the front of the house at Red Emma’s for three years, didn’t believe being part owner of a successful business was even a possibility for her.
“I grew up a black and trans woman in Baltimore, and there are a lot things, like the opportunity to run a business and grow that Red Emma’s offered, you are locked out of, especially because I'd been homeless at points in my life,” Jones says. “Working here, because people know it’s a safe space, now I have a chance to be a resource for other girls who may be struggling.
“I don’t have plans to go anywhere,” Jones adds. “I’m invested, and when I invest in something, it means I intend to be in for the long haul.”