On a recent Sunday night, three men sat at Red Emma's Bookstore and Coffeehouse, Baltimore's newest anarchist infoshop. They were there to see a screening of several films produced by the Independent Media Center.
The organizer of the evening's activities, John Duda, seemed disappointed with the turnout.
"Was anything else going on tonight?" he asked.
One customer, with a mop of brown hair, volunteered a reason why so few comrades-in-arms turned out for the event: "The Anarchists Union and the Women's Healthcare Collective meet on Sunday nights," he said. A-ha.
The old joke goes that it's hard to organize a group of anarchists. Nevertheless, Red Emma's - which is managed by a 15-person collective - is trying to do just that in the city's cultural district. It's at 800 St. Paul St.
"Our main thing is just having a place for individuals to learn about ideas that are not in the mainstream," said Liam Flynn, 39, who lives in Mount Vernon and gave up his career in the merchant marine to dedicate himself full time to the new bookstore.
To this end, the store - which is in a space that has been vacant for more than 10 years - sells books that are not typically seen in the large chain stores. Categories include: occult, prison industrial complex and, of course, anarchy.
The shop also provides free wireless Internet service for the Laptop Nation and has three desktop computers for people to use.
"Now with the Patriot Act, the government can get access to what people look at [on computers] in libraries. We won't tell anyone what you look at," promised Flynn. "But we'd hope people would be respectful," he quickly added.
The small, submerged store is cozy but somewhat austere. The polished cement floors are bare. Yet, an assortment of plants and the exposed brick walls add warmth to the venue. One member of the collective constructed an elaborate wrought-iron gate that adorns the door. Union posters hang on the walls, and bulletin boards advertise various progressive events.
The group wants local activists and artists to use the space for meetings. They've extended invitations for people to do poetry-writing workshops, play readings, computer classes and art shows.
Similar anarchist bookshops - or infoshops - have sprung up in 15 to 20 American cities, said Chuck Munson, the publisher of Practical Anarchist, a quarterly magazine for the community. Munson runs one in Kansas City, Mo.
"Anarchists tend to have a critique of all power structures," Munson explained. They "want to create a more egalitarian society where people are equal and have more say in their lives."
He said the anarchist movement was gaining strength in the late 1990s with large-scale demonstrations against the World Trade Organization. Since 9/11, however, work has slowed down.
Still, he said, the anarchist agenda includes protesting globalization, pollution, corporate media ownership, the Federal Communication Commission, attacks on civil liberties, the lack of affordable housing and, recently, the plans for a new baseball stadium in Washington.
The anarchists at Red Emma's emphasized that they don't want to jam this stuff down anyone's throat. "We're about free discussion of ideas," said Kate Khatib, a 27-year-old collective member who is working toward a doctorate in intellectual history at the Johns Hopkins University. "We're just providing information."
At Red Emma's, they practice what they preach. The shop is run on a volunteer basis by a collective that meets once a week to make major business decisions, which are made by a super majority. "Its all very casual; people joke around at meetings. Rarely does it take on a conspiratorial feel," said collective member Andrew Byrne.
Some of the collective members are familiar with this structure from their involvement with Black Planet, a similar book store that used to be in Fells Point.
The hope is that Mount Vernon, with a rash of students and cultural institutions, will produce more foot traffic.
And, there has been a steady flow of local customers wandering in and out.
On a recent Sunday, two groups of people were browsing the stacks at Red Emma's after viewing shows at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Others live or work in the area and have been eagerly awaiting the opening of new space in Mount Vernon - particularly one that is open on Sundays when many of the area's shops are closed.
But it is not for everyone. "I just don't think anarchy is a viable solution to the problems I see," said Everly Braun. "I like books, but I'm really not into their politics."
However, her husband, Gilles Mascarell, an artist, picked up an unusual Russian science textbook, something he may incorporate into his collages.
Red Emma's is at 800 St. Paul St. Hours are 11 a.m.-8 p.m., seven days a week. Starting Tuesday, hours will be extended to 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Call 410-230-0450 or visit www.red emmas.org.
For club events, see Page 30.