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Reading, writing, robots

Special to The Times

At the grand opening of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart on Dec. 15, the Robot Emotions were going like hot cakes (happiness and schadenfreude were the top sellers). The mystery product Chubble, on the other hand, available in more than 50 different varieties, wasn’t really moving. A worker dressed like a cowboy shrugged. “It’s really hot in the future.”

There were also bottles of optimism and socialism, dinosaur eggs, woolly mammoth chili, a bag of shade, a King Tut action figure and all manner of head wear, tri-corner hats as well as bonnets. Fortunately, it was a chilly night, because the slushie machine was on the blink. “Out of order. Come back yesterday,” read the handwritten sign.

This convenience store for time travelers, whose motto is “Whenever you are, we’re already then,” is the whimsical retail component of the new Echo Park 826LA, a free literacy and writing center for kids that was started by author Dave Eggers in San Francisco and then spun off in New York; Chicago; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Seattle; and Boston. Located on a busy stretch of Sunset Boulevard and scheduled to open for drop-in tutoring Jan. 14, the space will be the second 826 in Los Angeles -- making this the only city to have two fully functioning centers (the first is in a former police station in Venice).

According to 826LA co-director Mac Barnett, the organization has had its sights on Echo Park since it opened in Los Angeles in 2005, and the 2,800-square-foot former site of Fashion Five #2 is the fourth space they looked at on Sunset.

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“There’s such a community feel in this neighborhood,” Barnett said. “And this is a real thoroughfare that everybody in the community walks by.” The curious residents who have poked their heads in are excited. “I’ve had a lot of grandmothers say that they’re gonna tell everybody,” he added.

Easy accessibility is an important component for a center in any city, but especially in L.A., where public transportation is not all it could be. Whereas students in, say, San Francisco, can easily hop on the BART or Muni from all parts of the city, getting around is more complicated here, so a lot of potential users of 826 weren’t being served by the Venice center. Echo Park and the surrounding Eastside area (including Silver Lake, Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights) have 20,000 kids, far more than the Venice area.

The center is coming to Echo Park at a good time, when small businesses are seeing their rents doubled and tripled as new real estate agencies, shops and bistros pop up. Unlike those new, more upscale businesses, “826 is a space for everybody in the neighborhood,” Barnett noted. “There are a lot of places in Echo Park that cater to only one subset of the community, so you’ll have neighbors that never see each other. I think the beauty of what 826 does is it’s a comfortable, beautifully designed place that really is open for the entire community.”

The heart of 826’s programming is drop-in tutoring, which is available to kids ages 6 to 18, Monday through Thursday from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.; on any given day, there are usually 10 to 12 volunteers available from a pool of roughly 500. Students bring their homework in and work one on one with a volunteer until it’s finished.

“The first goal is to get the kid home with all their homework complete,” Barnett said. “When they’re done, they work on various projects. We really encourage the kids to go nuts and be ambitious. If the kid wants to make a movie, we say, ‘Let’s do it!’ ”

“The model is really simple,” he continued. “It’s basically a volunteer and a student working together. Part of its elegance is that simplicity.”

The idea was born of Eggers’ conversations with his teacher friends in New York, who lamented that they didn’t have more time to spend with students who were behind in their writing and reading skills (which, he was told, have suffered most as a result of the frequent standardized testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act).

“They said if they could clone themselves or double the workday, they could really give the students all the one-on-one attention they needed,” Eggers recalled. He had flown in from San Francisco for the opening of the Time Travel Mart, an event that was also a benefit party for the new center. “I started thinking about all the writers, editors, freelancers, graduate students I knew who did have some flexible hours and could spare an hour here or two hours there, so it was just an idea to meld the two communities. It wasn’t until we got back to San Francisco that we could find a space that was big enough.”

As the story goes, the zoning of the first center at 826 Valencia Street in the Mission District required there to be some sort of retail space in the storefront. Instead of the predictable bookstore or art gallery, Eggers decided to open a pirate supply store; a superhero supply company in Brooklyn followed. He had some ideas for the new space -- a Viking emporium among them -- but “I’ve been overruled every time.”

Although Eggers is on the board of 826 National and is an obvious inspiration for everyone involved (he also gave his $250,000 Heinz philanthropy award, bestowed this fall, to the organization), each center is run autonomously, a product of its community. Contrary to what some people think, it’s also run on a shoestring.

“I think because it has a name -- 826 -- and there are other cities, there’s this perception that we have a vast amount of funding,” Eggers said. “I really wish, but most of our funding comes in very small amounts -- from tickets to a concert at Largo or something at $30 a pop to individual donations, $100 here or there.”

826LA has only five full-time employees: Barnett, his co-director, Amy Orringer, and three others. Like everybody else who works for the organization, R. Scott Mitchell, a professor at SCI-Arc and USC, volunteered his services to design both the retail space and the writing lab.

Whereas the decor of the Time Travel Mart has carefully sourced details, such as the same freezers and linoleum one would find in a 7-Eleven (“We made a lot of field trips,” Mitchell said), the elegant writing lab with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a mezzanine where readings will take place was conceived as “a cross between Kubrick’s ‘2001' and a Victorian parlor.”

The renovation will probably not be completed until March, but as of Jan. 14 it will be functional. Said Mitchell, “There will be a floor, tables and chairs and, most of all, tutors.”

Still to come in the convenience store is a “pastport office” with various costumes and photo backdrops, and surveillance monitors replaying events that happened throughout time: cowboys holding up the store, gladiators shoplifting and a humorously sinister apocalyptic scene with video feedback and an uninhabited store.

This accidental element helps pay the rent on the whole space, and it also acts as a “welcome mat” for the writing center.

“We’re a writing lab that’s fronted by a convenience store for time travelers,” said Barnett with a smile. “It lets you know how classes might go in that writing lab.”

If anything can convince kids that learning is fun, this place can. As Barnett sees it, “there are so many more ways than sitting there with a blank page and saying, ‘OK, let’s get this story going.’ ” The kids might draw a map or write a song or write a book review based solely on the book’s cover.

Almost everything at 826LA is project-based. Mornings are usually devoted to class field trips on storytelling and bookmaking, from which the students take home a bound book, complete with their author photo on the back.

Workshops happen in the evenings and on weekends, and they run the gamut -- stand-up comedy as well as genre mash-ups, dada poetry and food reviews.

Spike Jonze, whose next film is the Eggers-scripted “Where the Wild Things Are,” taught the first workshop at 826LA, on making a skateboarding video. That’s about as prestigious as a free workshop gets, but big names don’t have much effect on the kids.

“It doesn’t matter to them that Spike Jonze is teaching the workshop,” said Barnett, “but they can immediately sense that this guy knows how to make a skateboarding video.”

The kids may not care, but the chic, buzzing crowd at the grand opening (including Lisa Eisner and Michael Cera) snapped to attention when Jonze and Eggers appeared on the stage.

Unfortunately, the free booze and the prospects for gazing at other beautiful people won out when most guests realized that the duo was actually going to discuss the work of 826.

“Please, I beg you,” Eggers said as they restarted an informational video over the din. “The students of Los Angeles are really up against it.” He urged anyone interested in volunteering to do so: “You’ll realize how much you have to offer.”

Then Jonze premiered a new skate video and local songstress Jenny Lewis did a dramatic spoken-word rendition of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time.”

Contrary to what one might think the goal would be -- hey, why not have an 826 in every city? -- Eggers said that they couldn’t open too many more centers without stretching themselves too thin. However, he heartily encourages more centers along the 826 model.

“We know it works, we know the students really respond to it, and we’d love other people to take the idea and adapt it however they want to their own neighborhoods,” he said. “There should be one on every block, you know? It should be just as common as Starbucks.”


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