Us About Anarchist-Retail Opportunities!
a short history of Who's Emma, a Toronto punk collective
When I come in for my morning shift at Who's
Emma, the store is silent. But the walls have a lot
"Why we're pissed off," starts one hand printed poster.
It's a diatribe against the puritanical attitude of
some of the other volunteers. A 1930s poster announcing
an Emma Goldman speech has, beneath her staid image,
a torn piece of junk mail: STOP Bed Wetting. A bland
promo poster for the Descendents' new album has a less
whimsical addition: "HOMOPHOBIC LYRICS AT TORONTO SHOW."
The Mr. T Experience CD on display has a sticker beside
the price tag that asks, "Why do people keep buying
Welcome to the paradox that is anarchist-retail.
BEHIND THE COUNTER-PROPAGANDA
In the middle of Kensington Market, the smelly and
eclectic refuge from sanitized Toronto, Who's Emma is
open for anti-business. For the last year, our group
of 30-50 people have run a small non-profit store without
the benefit of a boss. We sell T-shirts, CDs, records,
tapes, zines, studded wristbands and other aggressories,
G.G. Allin dolls, vegan cookies, Snapple, patches ("Live
to Squeegee -- Squeegee to Live"), buttons, books, postcards,
and much more. We're your punk rock merchandise source,
We're not the only store in town that sells this kind
of product -- to the naked eye, it's hard to tell the
difference between our store and a normal, for-profit
store. I look at it as the difference between a private
and a public library.
When Ben Franklin came up with the idea of a public
library, it was a new twist on the norm -- lime instead
of lemon. A collection of books held in common, accessible
to all. Centuries later, libraries keep broke urbanites
sane in a climate of commodified culture, offering them
worthy brainfodder in a variety of mediums. Franklin's
legacy started as a strange idea. What strange ideas
are we introducing that could flower as beautifully,
A little grandiose, admittedly, but anarchist-retail
amounts to a social experiment whatever way you look
at it. A volunteer-run, non-profit, ideals-fueled collective
is going to function differently than a boss-run, for-profit,
incentive-fueled workplace -- even if they're selling
exactly the same thing.
It amounts to taste. In my more level-headed moments,
I feel like it's arguing over which drinks are better:
some mixtures will get you drunk faster, some will go
down smoother, but one variation isn't inherently better
than the other. But most days, I'm not level-headed,
I'm a contrary, biased punk who knows what he likes.
"They're making gin and tonics," I think to myself
about for-profit stores, "but we be fixing up
some molotov cocktails."
MIX ONE PART KEROSENE WITH...
Anarcho-feminist Emma Goldman's quote "If I can't dance
I don't want to be in your revolution" echoed the originators
desire to mix fun with radical politics. But when referential
names like "Emma's Dancing Emporium" were tried out
on some of the punk kids, the response was often: "Who's
Emma?" The need for a source of radical history was
never so clear -- and the collective had a name that
was both meaningful and pleasantly mysterious.
As most things do, it started up with a few people.
People heard about it and started coming 'round, got
comfy, and started thinking up stuff to do. Student
film nights, '80s dance parties, sound system workshops,
women and queer nights, Food Not Bombs meetings... all
sprang up as fast as dandelions, all facilitated by
different people. A year later, having moved across
the road to a space twice as big, people are hyped about
having shows in the basement. Because the originators
stepped back and let other people groove, making it
as open format as possible, people were inspired to
take on responsibilities. Even in anarchist circles,
it is a rare and special thing to see the originators
stepping back, and I applaud their faith. It's a microcosm
of the withering away of the state those commies are
always talking about.
But before I get too pie-in-the-sky, come back into
the store. See those books? They were ordered through
indie distributors by the people on the book committee,
who chose books they liked and wanted to read. See the
register? It's new. We got it used after the people
on the finance committee got fed up with manually tallying
up the taxes. See the girl at the register punching
something in, slowly, following the easy instructions
taped to it? She's going to high school, but she works
here every Monday between 3-7. You see the huge magazine
rack that holds the zines? That was scored by a friend
of someone in the collective who noticed it in an abandoned
store in the building where he works. See this flyer?
It's for a pirate radio workshop being held here next
week -- a few weeks ago we had a silkscreening workshop
put on by someone in the neighborhood who knows how
to make neat patches and T-shirts. See those free condoms
and the vanilla-flavored dental dams? Someone called
up the health department and got them to send the store
a huge box.
Basically, the space is a collection of individual
efforts, of people taking action to improve the store.
This is the heart of it. Multifaceted people putting
their talents and skills into a project they believe
in. Given the 30-50 person pool that the store draws
on, it makes for considerably more variety than your
average for-profit store with three or four people working
And we need that pool: some people, as a result of
either one conflict or the other, cut down the amount
of hours they put into the store. It's understandable,
because the more time you put into something, the more
say you expect to have -- it becomes an extension of
your ego to a certain extent, like your home, and you'd
like it to reflect your tastes and ideals. But in a
collective as large as ours members have to be especially
careful that they don't invest so much time that they
become bitter when things don't go their way. The disadvantage
to "many hands make light work" is that it doesn't always
A common assumption about the store is that every decision
has to be passed by the collective. Not true. For instance,
when someone wants to order a zine, they don't ask for
permission -- they just do it. However, any of the collective
can challenge this action, if, say, they find the zine
objectionable. This happens exceedingly rarely -- people
are quite tolerant of other's choices. More often, people
are uncomfortable with making decisions that involve
a lot of money or affect a lot of people. Thus the need
for a monthly meeting.
To state the obvious, meetings are boring. Not only
that, but they sap the strength and enthusiasm of a
collective -- it's an hour or two of volunteer time
that could be spent doing practical, hands-on stuff
for the store. But if people aren't involved with decisions
on big issues, then morale weakens. So a balance must
We try to make it a more enjoyable gathering by starting
with a vegan potluck and free coffee. Then every effort
this side of rudeness is made to keep it as short as
possible. We run on a consensus model, meaning that
every person has to agree for a decision to be made.
Surprisingly, the monthly meetings usually run between
one and two hours.
In contrast, I have worked in a collective with a democratic
decision-making process, and the meetings would regularly
stretch two and three hours -- and these were weekly
meetings. Granted, the group in the democratic collective
were less like-minded, but there is something in the
democratic model that lends itself to taking a polarized
position and hanging on for dear life. Righteous speeches
are made, tables are pounded, ego is invested and competition's
claws spring out. Winners and losers, grudges and anger...
What I have seen at the Who's Emma meetings convinces
me that the consensus model changes the dynamic of the
discussion. People start out towards compromise, knowing
that they won't get the hell out until everyone's satisfied.
But would it be punk rock if everything was bread 'n'
roses? Hell naw. So for your edutainment, here's a couple
of our more memorable tussles.
GET THAT CAMERA OUTTA MY FUCKEN FACE
I do promotions for the store, and when I was giving
my monthly report someone mentioned that they had a
friend at Much Music (Canada's MTV) who might do a story
on us. I had debated contacting them myself -- I wasn't
exactly thrilled with the idea of collaborating with
corporate youth culture parasites, but if it ended up
exposing suburban kids to grassroots subversive politics
then I thought it might be a worth-while compromise.
So I said I thought it sounded good and no one else
voiced serious opposition to it, and so he went about
setting it up.
Someone who hadn't been at the meeting drew up a petition
to protest it. Some of the people who had been at the
meeting signed it, although they had given their tacit
approval. Meanwhile, the guy who was setting the interview
up caught wind of this and, understandably, was upset.
He had gone about this the proper way, and now it seemed
like people were turning purer-than-thou on him.
But there were a few mitigating circumstances -- firstly,
that the person who drew up the petition didn't know
that it had been discussed at the meeting, and secondly,
that people could be of two minds on the issue.
I myself was torn. I saw that it was easier and more
efficient (volunteer time being finite) to get mainstream
media coverage than to hand out flyers to a hundred
kids on the street. I believed that the things we sold
were politically powerful enough to justify the compromise
-- and yet the ideas of their cameras in our store made
me queasy. It just smelled bad, you know?
And this petition proved that many people felt the
same. The store doesn't run on image or capital, it's
volunteer powered -- and if having cameras in the store
truly upset people, then it wasn't worth the revenue
it would bring in. It was a messy business, with some
people being justifiably pissed off, but eventually
three-chord harmony was restored. To date, we have not
been on Much Music.
THE MAJOR DEBATE
The other big controversy was over major labels. Big
surprise, eh? A couple of people on the record committee
had been ordering major label-affiliated music from
indie distributors, and a couple of other people took
issue with it. The argument that it was aiding and abetting
the media monopoly was countered with proof that even
Crass and Conflict had corporate ties. The claim that
it was the responsibility of the store to provide access
to all inspirational hardcore was parried by pointing
out that every suburban record outlet did that job already.
What this debate did uncover was a hitherto unnamed
division that would resonate through future discussions.
There were some who identified more strongly with the
anarchist element, and so wanted a space which would
resist the corporate octopus; and there were some who
thought Who's Emma should be, primarily, a punk rock
cultural space -- warts and all.
At one point, splitting the collective into two stores
was discussed: books for the anarchists and records
for the punks. This meeting showed how blurred the division
really was -- while most people had a bias towards punk
or anarchist, everyone considered both important. Once
splitting up had been decided against, people were in
a more positive mood for discussing the issue. There
was no policy made, but after hearing how many members
felt, two people on the record committee said that they
didn't plan to order any more major label stuff. The
used records are often on major labels, however.
Even in a subculture as small as ours, there are a
dozen ways to slice-and-dice. Straightedge and drunkpunk,
queercore and breeder, crusty and emo, those-who-fly-the-freak-flag-high
To me, the idea of dividing the mob up into more cleanly
defined groups would not only have been difficult, it
would have made the place less interesting -- it's the
odd mix and the diversity that I enjoy. But there's
so much animosity in the scene, and so much divisiveness
in the world at large, that it was a pleasant surprise
to find that we were not only willing to work
together but wanted to.
Naturally, the description of these two conflicts will
cause some readers to dismiss the consensus system.
But consider this: of the thousands of decisions that
were made by individuals and during meetings in this
formative year, only two were contentious enough to
be worth noting. How many conventional workplaces can
say the same?
RIDE THE VIBE
Emma's is also quite different from the dusty and quiet
places I've seen in my travels, shrines to the activist
martyrs that work there. Regardless of how politically
cool they are, the space doesn't hum. At Who's
Emma, mysterious flyers appear like leaves, plans unfold
like a speeded-up film of seeds, parties threaten to
break out like good weather.
Some guy comes in looking for a Hakim Bey book and
ends up telling me about the subterranean guerrilla
theater he and a half-dozen friends have been inflicting
upon the subway denizens. He leaves dada stickers on
the free shelf. Someone comes in later and laughs at
the stickers. I tell her the subway story and she tells
me about a great puppet show she saw at a hardcore concert
in North Carolina. She's visiting her friend in Toronto
-- she read about us in Profane Existence. I
give her a few suggestions on interesting places to
go and cheap places to eat.
Someone from the show committee comes in while I'm
talking to her and makes a change to the calendar, adding
a band and crossing one date off completely. I wave
good-bye as he rushes out. An old guy with a beard and
a cycling helmet comes in and asks to tape up a poster
about a demo against police brutality, and I toss him
the tape. Mark knows him and asks him about so-and-so.
Mark does the shift with me, and it's a good excuse
to get together once a week. He invites his friends
to visit him on his shift and I do the same, and the
cross-pollination begins. It's a low stress way to hook
up with people, to be able to say I'm gonna be at
Who's Emma on Thursday between 11-3, come on by if you
feel like it, we'll play you music. It's a bit of
consistency for us folk who don't like our schedules
I guess I'm tipping my hand here -- if it's the only
thing I'm willing to commit to, you can figure out how
much I dig it. But I really only have one criterion
for volunteering -- that I get as much energy back as
I put into it. For the past year, I've been getting
my energy's worth, and I'm not the only one. For whatever
combination of reasons, this punk rock paradox works.
YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED
It's the end of my shift. I've been standing in my
coat, ready to leave, for fifteen minutes. For the last
four hours I've been dancing to Huggy Bear, chatting
to the odd folk, pricing the new arrivals, and even
punching up a few sales. Now I've got some groceries
to buy, but friends keep coming in, or some zine I haven't
seen catches my eye. Eventually I'll leave.
Oh, the agonies of retail hell.
Who's Emma closed down September 2000.
Sidebar: KINDRED SPIRIT STORES
Old Market Autonomous Zone
Mondragon Cafe+Bookstore/Liberty Library
91 Albert St.
Winnipeg AB R3B 1G5, Canada
Wooden Shoe Books and Records
112 S. 20th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103, USA
Crescent Wrench Books and Infoshop
2116 Burgundy St.
New Orleans, LA 70116, USA
2311 West North Ave.
Chicago IL, USA
Garden of Delight
3 Castle St.,
Dublin 2, Ireland
+353 1 475 1233
This originally appeared in Punk Planet #19,