Can you open this mysterious safe?

This is a repost blog.

This story is compiled from articles written by Julie Scharper in The Baltimore Banner

6 Aug 2023: Can you open this mysterious safe? Red Emma’s bookstore seeks safecrackers by Julie Scharper in The Baltimore Banner

Duck into the arched stone doorway of Red Emma’s bookstore in Waverly, climb the wooden steps to the second floor and behold a mystery.

Sandwiched between biographies and philosophy books stands an immense metal safe — just the right size to hide a magician, a body or a small fortune. No one knows what’s inside. The safe is locked and appears to have remained so for years, if not decades.

It is extremely, extremely heavy — so heavy we’re honestly not sure how they got it into the building and up to the second floor,” said John Duda, part of the cooperative that owns and works at Red Emma’s. “There’s no way we’re ever getting it out of here. And we also don’t have the combination.”

So the Red Emma’s crew this week extended an invitation to Baltimore on Twitter: Come take a crack at the safe.

There are a few caveats: No drilling. Nothing destructive. Only old-fashioned lock-picking, please. And just during business hours.

If the contents are enticing, the lucky picker gets to keep half. And, if they’re gross or cursed,” they wrote, you gotta keep it all.

It’s unclear just how old the safe is. It’s nearly 6 feet tall and about 3 feet wide. There are two metal handles, each stamped with numerals, and a metal dial etched with the numbers from 10 to 70. In gold letters toward the bottom is a logo for the York Safe & Lock Co. in York, Pennsylvania.

A website devoted to York Safe & Lock says that the company made safes from the 1800s until the 1940s and had an outpost in Baltimore.

Also unknown is when the safe arrived in the stone building at 32nd Street and Greenmount Avenue, just east of the Johns Hopkins University campus. The structure was built in 1920, according to state property records. In the 1940s, it operated as Hooper’s lunchroom and it was the site of desegregation protests in the 1960s, Duda said. Later, it housed an antique shop, Early Attic, and then sat vacant for many years before the Red Emma’s collective purchased the property last year and began renovating it.

This is the fourth and largest location for the radical bookstore, which started in a small storefront on St. Paul Street in Mount Vernon in 2004. From the start, the bookstore, which carries works about civil rights, queer theory and social justice, among other topics, has been owned by its employees. The current location sits across from the 32nd Street Farmers Market and next to Pete’s Grille. In addition to two floors of books, an adjoining property — which used to be a gay bar called Office Disco, according to Duda — is a coffee shop serving vegan food.

A few people have stopped by to give the lock a whirl, but none have had success, said Meg Berkobien, a worker-owner, on Thursday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, Ken Analysis” Brown, another worker-owner, opined that it likely held money. I’d bet there’s cash inside,” he said. Maybe not a lot.”

But if his dreams were to come true, Brown said, the safe would contain original writings of Emma Goldman, the anarchist and writer for whom the bookstore is named, or essays by Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist who died in 1977.

Berkobien had a grislier vision of the content. In my head, if I’m being honest, it’s a body,” she said. But I’m also the resident horror person.”

She doubted that anyone would be able to crack the code. And that’s fine with her.

I love a good mystery,” she said. I’m happy with it never being opened.”

12 Aug. 2022 The mysterious safe at Red Emma’s has at last been opened by Julie Scharper at The Baltimore Banner

A twist to the left. Two turns to the right. A bang, a thump, a click.

For weeks, people have been jimmying an antique safe at Red Emma’s bookstore in Waverly, trying to coax the massive metal box to reveal its secrets. On Friday, the doors of the safe swung open at last.

The safecracker ― or yeggman, in the parlance of the profession — was Rick Ammazzini of Winnipeg, Canada. The 46-year-old had seen Red Emma’s staff issue a challenge online for safecrackers in early July.

The safe was in the stone building at the corner of Greenmount Avenue and 32nd Street when the Red Emma’s collective purchased the space last year. The building dates to at least the 1920s and has housed a lunch counter and antiques shop, among other businesses. The age of the safe was unclear, but it must be at least 75 years old, since its manufacturer went out of business in the late 1940s.

Ammazzini, a bus driver who taught himself to crack safes a dozen years ago, raised $1,300 online to fund his trip to Baltimore. He arrived Wednesday and got to work inspecting the dial of the safe on the second floor of the radical leftist bookshop.

I had to touch this dial for about 10 hours,” said Ammazzini.

Ammazzini said that between each pair of numbers on a dial lock there are four subtle notches only an experienced yeggman can feel. Ammazzini spent hours exploring the gaps between each of the digits on the lock until he arrived at the three-digit combination.

The lock was partially broken, which slowed the process of deciphering the combination, Ammazzini said. If it had been functioning normally, he could have opened it in about an hour, he said.

Ammazzini opened the safe late Thursday evening, but the collective of Red Emma’s worker-owners decided to wait to inspect the contents until Friday morning. Several staff members, visitors and members of the media arrived for the big reveal.

As the crowd waited breathlessly, Ken Analysis” Brown, one of Red Emma’s worker-owners, removed a layer of blue tape and swung open the doors.

Inside the safe was … nothing. Well, not entirely. Brown bent closer to the dusty shelves inside and slid open four small wooden drawers.

Upon closer inspection, the safe contained four paper clips, a rubber band, a torn label for a bottle from the Cresta Blanca Winery and a paystub for a Helen Davidson, an employee of University Dining, Inc.,” perhaps a contractor for nearby Johns Hopkins University.

There was no year on the yellowed paystub, but it showed that Davidson took home $5.69 for 20 hours of work for a week in late February.

But wait. As so often happens in life, solving one mystery revealed another. Among the wooden drawers was a metal compartment emblazoned with a star-like design. It was locked.

As Ammazzini prepared to pick that lock, a TV camerawoman discovered a tiny metal key in one of the drawers. Brown slipped it into the lock and turned.

The inner compartment opened to reveal … another wooden drawer. Also empty.

Although there was no pile of gold or trove of secret documents inside the safe, the mood in the bookstore was joyful. Brown said the collective members would meet to decide what to do with the safe. Perhaps stock it with books or a special display or just let visitors inspect it.

From her perch at the front desk, Red Emma’s collective member Meg Berkobien said she preferred the safe as an unsolved mystery. Yet, she said, the safe brought joy to the bookstore this summer.

It’s been exciting to see everyone coming in,” she said. At the end of the day, we’re a community space and this is the perfect way to bring in the community.”


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September 9, 2023