"Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire" chronicles 826's mission to empower school-age writers


Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book, Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd., McSweeny's and 826's Amanda Uhle and Kitania Folk

Top: Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book and Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd. Bottom: McSweeney's and 826's Kitania Folk and Amanda Uhle.

A time travel mart. An apothecary for the magical. An alien supermarket. A mid-continent oceanographic institute. A secret agent supply. A place for pirates.

These places are just a few of the many storefronts -- complete with their own imaginative products -- that serve as portals to literary writing spaces for youth around the world.

The one in Ann Arbor is known as the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, and the one in Detroit is called the Detroit Robot Factory.

The inspiration for these quirky businesses and equally creative writing centers comes from the brainchild of Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, who together started the first 826 Valencia location -- the pirate supply shop -- in San Francisco, though not with that intent at the beginning. When renting a building in 2002, they’d planned for offices for the nonprofit publishing company, McSweeney’s, along with an area for tutoring local youth.

But the building’s zoning was for retail, and consequently, the pirate supply shop was born to fulfill the criteria.

This requirement turned out to be fortuitous for engaging youth, as these writing centers create space for young people to exercise their imagination and writing. Now there are not only two more locations in San Francisco but also many more around the globe that have been motivated by this distinctive arrangement, including nine that are part of 826 National, which was later founded in 2008. One of the chapters is 826michigan with its two locations in Ann Arbor and Detroit, both of which rely on volunteers.

These 826 chapters and other like-minded writing centers are featured in a new book, Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire: How 826 Valencia, and Dozens of Centers Like It, Got Built -- and Why, edited by the International Alliance of Youth Writing Centers. This extensive volume showcases these individual centers through myriad photographs -- including many full-page spreads -- and Q&A-style descriptions of the themes and designs of the individual centers, including who designed them, what the spaces and stores are like, and what one-of-a-kind themed products they sell. Not all of the centers are affiliated with 826 National – some are simply inspired by 826, and they are located around the United States and world, including in the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, England, and Canada.

Ann Arbor's Amanda Uhle, the former 826michigan executive director and now publisher and executive director of McSweeney’s, wrote the book’s introduction with Eggers. The two make a point of why 826's spaces strive to be fun and inviting:

Sterile, brutalist learning boxes can suffocate the mind and make a young person feel they are being contained, instead of being set free.

This description is the foundation on which the writing centers are designed. Within the profiles in the book, many of the writing centers around the world share similarly spectacular observations about why the fantastical themes for the centers work so well. Grimm & Co in Rotherham, England offers this purpose for its space: 

This is a place where young people experiencing chaos or disruption in their lives can shake off the experiences that block their imaginations and obstruct learning.

The Story Factory in Parramatta, Australia likewise notes that, for youth, the center “makes them feel like their writing matters.” These strong endorsements are followed by a guide on how to come up with a theme and launch such a writing center and store.

The resounding enthusiasm for these writing centers by youth and adults alike comes alive in Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire, which contains profiles of the 826michigan locations. Pulp spoke with Uhle and the book’s managing editor, Kitania Folk, about their work, why these centers matter, and how the new book was created.

Q: Tell us about your journey working with writing centers. What does your work now involve?
UHLE: I was executive director at 826michigan for 11 years, and operations now are in the able hands of Dr. Naimah Wade, who took the helm in 2018. These days I split my time between my role as publisher and executive director of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company, and my work at The Hawkins Project, where we support the work of all the youth writing centers in the International Alliance of Youth Writing Centers. The Hawkins Project also leads The International Congress of Youth Voices, a gathering of the world’s most accomplished teen activists, and we take on other projects that make sense to help connect these incredible organizations and further their work.
FOLK: When I was in high school in San Francisco, I was a student editor for the Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology series, a program adjacent to 826 Valencia that included a group of student editors at 826michigan. Dave Eggers was the editor of the anthology and my teacher in that program. When I returned to San Francisco after going to college and working in New York, I reconnected with Dave and met Amanda Uhle and began working with The Hawkins Project. I am based in San Francisco. 

Q: What compels you to work with youth writing centers?
UHLE: It’s easy to understand why so many people get behind the mission of these organizations. But why do we invest in beauty when the world is in peril in so many ways? My experience is that the investment itself is one of the most important parts of the outcome. It’s incredible to see local organizations invite artists to transform a vacant storefront into something entirely new and special. And I love to see caring adults pitch in as volunteers, gaining new perspectives themselves as they’re giving back. There’s something inherently important about bringing adults and children together in these ways for authentic work together, for the greater good.

Q: Where did the idea for a book highlighting the writing centers come from?
FOLK: The idea for this book had been tossed back and forth for a while. Dave had been visiting the centers in this book for many years as part of his travels. The incredible feeling of walking into these spaces -- awe, wonder, curiosity -- is difficult to replicate, but we just had to try. I personally haven’t physically been to every center, so I needed to rely on Dave’s experiences and communication with folks at the centers themselves -- and sometimes co-founders and designers -- to understand how to best show these spaces as close as possible to how they really are. Beyond wanting to give others the opportunity to see inside these spaces, we also wanted to help inspire others by telling how the spaces came to be and showing that it’s possible, with a lot of work and creativity, to make a place like these spaces.

Q: This book contains some beautiful photography of youth writing spaces and their connected retail stores. How did you go about taking all the photographs?
FOLK: I wish we got to visit all these locations! However, we were lucky enough to have excited partners in these centers to get us the photos that we needed to properly illustrate each center. Many centers have had professional photographers document their spaces at some point, so we relied heavily on photos provided by the spaces themselves. We pieced together variously sourced photos in order to provide the experience of walking up to an intriguing storefront, going in, and discovering what lay inside. Fascinating shops -- from Time Travel Marts to Alien Supermarkets -- with surprising and delightful original products. Finally, the visitor realizes, "Oh, this is a tutoring center." And there are students here right now! It’s a lot to get from photos, so we are grateful to each center for sending us seemingly every photo of their space that they could dig up.

Q: How did you collaborate with the International Alliance of Youth Writing Centers to edit this book?
FOLK: Each center featured in the book belongs to the International Alliance of Youth Writing Centers, an informal network of youth writing centers with shared visions that collaborate on projects. This was one such project. There was no way we could have made this book without our partner centers, from explaining what a particular product was -- "How do you can 'Invisibility'?" -- to whether a sequence of photos reflected how the center was actually laid out. Then there were the written responses to questions about how their space came to be. Stock questions and stock answers just weren’t going to cut it as each center has its own origin story, pitfalls, and triumphs. We needed each center’s help to properly tell -- and show -- their story.

Q: Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire contains profiles of both 826-affiliated centers, as well as other youth writing centers. How did you decide which ones to include in this book?
UHLE: It’s impossible to contain the worldwide movement of these youth writing centers in one book, even such a large and expansive one. And truly, every one of the centers in the network is doing magnificent work in their communities, and most of them are operating in some kind of unusual, fascinating space. The centers featured in the book are places where we know the physical sensation of walking into their space, that feeling of wonder and curiosity they somehow generate, even in adults. We tried to select images that convey some of that same feeling.

Q: The subtitle of the book is How 826 Valencia, and Dozens of Centers Like It, Got Built -- and Why. What did you learn from covering these writing centers?
UHLE: Each of these centers is driven by visionary people, local leaders who believe that school-aged students in their city deserve an extraordinary place all their own and a horde of thoughtful adults ready to support them. I think that’s the hidden story in this book, that there are superhumans in every city in the world ready to put young people first. It’s really powerful for me to see these people who so tangibly are investing in the next generation with not just funds but also with smart ideas and creativity.

Q: Are there common characteristics across the centers that you noticed? 
UHLE: In addition to the tremendous people involved in all of these organizations, there are some key physical characteristics, too. Most every place has a big room with tables and chairs for students and tutors to work together on homework or writing projects. Traditionally, that space is tucked behind a public-facing storefront. Occasionally those writing labs are hidden behind secret doors or passages. 826 NYC’s superhero store has a trick bookshelf, and 826 LA’s Echo Park store has a secret passage to the back room. In some storefronts, visitors can peek into the back via a window or across an open doorway. In all cases, the centers are welcoming students and families and volunteers, as well as welcoming the public, to learn more about what they do and how to support it.

Q: The profiles of centers discuss their unique themes, architecture plans, and design elements. Their planning -- and engagement of professionals in that planning -- shows how intentional that the organizers are about developing spaces that spark creativity. In the back of the book, the guide for starting such a center discusses avoiding an “institutional atmosphere.” How does everyone determine if the design is something that will resonate with youth?
UHLE: The best way to see what works for kids is to ask them to weigh in. Not every center was built with young people in a planning role, but more and more, centers are integrating students’ ideas into the architectural and design process whenever possible. Early in the process of opening a center, communities will hold big planning sessions, including local artists, educators, parents, and other stakeholders, including kids. At 826 Valencia’s Tenderloin location, architects used a fifth-grade student’s drawing of a tree fort reading nook to bring it into being. It’s a showpiece of their spectacular space.

Q: One of the centers includes this description in the book: "Very often, we find that children who are known to be "the quiet one" or "the class clown" behave differently in our education center. Here, they feel that they can be whoever they want to be in a room separate from their usual social context." How does a change in setting liberate the youths’ creativity?
UHLE: These beautiful spaces send an important message to young people: that anything is possible. There’s something about walking into a Bigfoot Research Institute [Boston] or a space travel supply store [Seattle] that tells everyone who enters: this is different. Most kids spend time in their own homes and in places designed with the utilitarian in mind, like most schools and sports facilities are. To walk in and see an adult wearing a lab coat and goggles, as they sometimes do at the Liberty Street 826michigan location, not only do students suspend belief, but usually adult visitors do, too.

Q: Finally, the products sold in the stores are so creative! What are your favorites?
UHLE: In Louisville, Kentucky, Young Authors Greenhouse’s Opposite Shop sells an excellent sea monster bait in their Deep Sea Supply line of products.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Visit unnecessarilybeautiful.com for more information on the book.