The Echo Park Time Travel Mart on Sunset Boulevard is not what it seems. A sign across the otherwise unremarkable building reads: “Whenever You Are, We're Already Then.” Inside you will find dinosaur eggs incubating on shelves, sand-filled bottles of “Time,” (five minutes, $5.99; one day, $9.99; one year, $17.99), tubes of “Human Emotions for Robots,” “Dead Languages” in jars. An oblivious window shopper might mistake the store for another overpriced tchotchke shop, chock-full of clever but seemingly useless gags for sale. But take a closer look and you'll notice that the books for sale are collections of writing from actual kids from the neighborhood. Ask the girl behind the register, outfitted in full Viking garb, what the point of it all is and she will direct you toward a black-curtained door in the back that leads to 826LA East.
The newest branch of eight nationwide tutoring centers (co-founded by Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari; locally there are two in Los Angeles and another in Venice), 826LA East takes the left side of your kid's brain to the gym. Each nonprofit center provides free drop-in tutoring, classroom field trips and writing workshops for those aged 6 to 18. Most writing centers also have their own uniquely themed store: There's the Pirate Store in the flagship 826 in San Francisco, the Boring Store in Chicago and the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. in New York. But beyond the witty retail shops, the writing centers are based on a very logical, concrete philosophy: that children should have somewhere to go for help with their homework if they need it and should learn how to write creatively and, most of all, well.
After school, local kids pass through the Time Travel Mart into a smallish room lined with circular tables, blackboards scrawled with the skeletons of plots and a reading corner stuffed with books. Four days a week, volunteers provide tutoring, and on the weekends, 826LA East hosts free writing workshops, such as “8-2=6,” a math-themed writing class, advertised as “for those who fall asleep while doing their math … and students who would eat math instead of Cap'n Crunch for breakfast if they could,” and “The Encyclopedia of ________,” a class based on a Borges short story, where students invent their own reference books. The tutoring center also offers field trips for local schools, where volunteers lead classes through the process of writing a collaborative book, which is printed in-house by the end of the visit, with a copy for each student to take home.
826LA East fosters a culture of creativity and productivity, as reflected in the giddy enthusiasm of the kids and the impressive support of its volunteers, who tend to be youngish writers themselves. “Everyone here is really creative and has something to contribute as far as design, or product ideas. Everyone has a niche,” says volunteer Lauren Rogers.
Whether you have a child who needs the chance to get excited about Shakespeare and semicolons, or you're looking for a place to volunteer that will inject a dose of human joy in your robotic routine, 826LA and the Echo Park Time Travel Mart will take you there. And if anyone tries to tell you that learning to write book reports from back covers and inside flaps is cheating, you can tell them that at 826LA, it's an art.
—Erica Zora Wrightson