Why you should care
Because a blast to the past means a future for kids.
It’s been just under a minute since I walked through the door and already the cashier is fielding questions about a curious display of doughnuts. “Fresh ’n’ Delicious in 1985,” the sticker on the display case reads. Somebody wants to know if the doughnuts are actually edible. Someone else is asking about the robot milk in the back fridge. Maybe you can drink it and maybe you can’t — it does look to be straight from the cow, though the cashier isn’t keen on non-whimsical answers. “Simply mix in motor oil,” he says. And the doughnuts? “Everything is as it appears,” he intones. Well, not exactly.
The Time Travel Mart in central Los Angeles offers more than supplies to the would-be wormhole explorer. It’s also a creative space for kids, where local students ages 6 to 18 can meet at the back of the store each day to improve their writing and communication skills, receive help with homework from volunteers and publish stories. Children here are literally writing their own futures, probably as you read this.
The mart is part of 826LA, a chapter of 826 National, which was co-founded in San Francisco in 2002 by educator Nínive Calegari and novelist Dave Eggers. Initially Eggers and Calegari wanted to open a tutoring center for kids. Because the space they had rented in San Francisco was zoned for retail, they had to sell something. So they started offering pirate supplies, with any profits going directly to keeping the center free for students.
826CHI is for secret agents, but you didn’t hear that from us.
Since then, eight more chapters have opened — in New York City, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Ann Arbor/Detroit, New Orleans, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Los Angeles — with each one operating under a different theme. At the 826NYC Superhero Supply Co., kids can test out various capes before heading through a hidden door that leads to the workshop. 826CHI is for secret agents, but you didn’t hear that from us. The aforementioned Time Travel Mart will sell you Dark Ages battle armor and books on how to fend off cavemen. It even has a Slurpee machine — the machine is broken, though, with a sign that reads, “Out of order, come back yesterday.” And though the concepts are fun and fanciful on their own, it’s their impact that matters most.
In Los Angeles County, which is the largest chapter, some 10,000 underserved students are helped by the organization year-round — work that’s done via the Time Travel Mart’s writing center and field trips and by volunteers visiting schools. Many of the young attendees excel far beyond the classroom. For example, Tito had a short ghost story published in The New York Times for Kids; he’s also published a graphic novel. Gabriela is a poet and a member of the 826LA Youth Advisory Board. “Then there’s a young writer named Diego,” says Cheryl Klein, development manager for 826LA, “whose poems simply make me think and sometimes make me cry.”
While sales of time travel supplies and donations make up a portion of what keeps 826LA running, Klein notes that the biggest boost comes via fundraising events throughout the year — two of which net roughly $650,000. At “Tell Me a Story,” the main event, “students, volunteers, writers and celebrities … share their funny and moving essays and personal stories,” Klein says. There’s also been a Spelling Bee for Cheaters. The theme of this year’s fall peer-to-peer fundraiser has yet to be announced, “but it may involve dragons … and dungeons,” hints Klein.
Despite these successes, the struggles of a nonprofit still run deep. “Some of our biggest challenges stem from what happens in students’ lives outside our spaces,” says Klein — like teacher strikes or, more gravely, fear that a student’s family members might be deported. “We hope that … our spaces will continue to be a respite where students know they’re safe,” she says.
As with the children they nurture, staff is eclectic. They have to be, as their backgrounds and passion are vital to the organization’s future. Klein, for instance, has worked with formerly incarcerated or gang-involved adults and older youth. Katelyn Durst, a poet and volunteer coordinator for 826Michigan, advocates for racial equity and social justice, and has taught poetry in schools and psychiatric hospitals. “As a young Black girl surrounded by no one that looked like me,” says Durst, “poetry and songwriting was the way I could communicate my experience.”
Of course, heading to the late Cretaceous Period to stave off a T. rex attack, or building robots for the future doesn’t exactly come from experience — but it does come from courage. “I really enjoy seeing students … who aren’t immediately comfortable sharing their stories come out of their shells,” Klein says. There’s a willingness in these kids to show the world who they are: superheroes, robot enthusiasts, spies and magicians. They are time travelers, but they are also the future itself.