Ask 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 to say.

"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 this?"

Welcome to the paradox that is anarchist-retail.


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, friend.

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, centuries hence?

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."


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 there.

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 reward intensity.

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 be found.

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.


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 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 and those-who-keep-it-neatly-folded-in-their-back-pocket. 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?


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 hardened.

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.


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.



Old Market Autonomous Zone
Mondragon Cafe+Bookstore/Liberty Library
91 Albert St.
Winnipeg AB R3B 1G5, Canada
(204) 946-5241

Wooden Shoe Books and Records
112 S. 20th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103, USA
(215) 569-2477

Crescent Wrench Books and Infoshop
2116 Burgundy St.
New Orleans, LA 70116, USA
(504) 944-4907

Autonomous Zone
2311 West North Ave.
Chicago IL, USA
(773) 278-0775

Garden of Delight
3 Castle St.,
Dublin 2, Ireland
+353 1 475 1233


This originally appeared in Punk Planet #19, Jul-Aug. 1997.