My monster idea

When you are writing a piece of journalism about a building where extraordinary things happen, you are almost obliged, by the unbending law of cliché, to begin it thus: “Behind the bland/unprepossessing/unpromising facade of ... (insert address here)” After all, most houses, offices and warehouses are nothing to write home, or anywhere else, about. Occasionally, however, you come across a place that makes things difficult. 826 Valencia in San Francisco is, unhelpfully, one of those places.

Only the most determinedly joyless of writers could use that formula to open a story about the address of McSweeney’s, the independent publishers. 826 Valencia is, on the outside and some of the inside, a Pirate Store. It sells messages in bottles, glass eyeballs, and wooden legs. Even if you were hell-bent on ignoring the piratical aspect, just because it made life easier, then you would end up cursing the huge and very striking mural by graphic artist Chris Ware above the shop. Blandness is nowhere to be found on this particular facade.

In 2002, Dave Eggers, author of the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, decided that he wanted to help, in some practical way, those of his friends who were struggling with their teaching jobs in overcrowded and underfunded US state schools. They always made the same complaint: there wasn’t enough time to give the children the attention they needed. Eggers hit on the idea of a writing school for inner-city children, a place that would offer one-to-one tuition for anyone who wanted it. He had recently founded the quarterly (in a good year) magazine McSweeney’s and knew young editors, writers and illustrators who were able to help. The best premises he could find for the school happened to be in a shop. The landlord was happy to rent it to him but told him that local zoning laws meant he had to sell things – hence the Pirate Store.

826 Valencia operates as a drop-in centre after school hours; during the school day, teachers bring in classes. The work produced is frequently and beautifully published. But what is really extraordinary is that, very quickly, 826 went national: there are 826s in New York City and Los Angeles, Denver and Washington, DC, Chicago and Seattle, Ann Arbor and Boston. And every centre has a shop. In Brooklyn you can buy everything you need to turn yourself into a superhero, including suckers that really do enable you to climb walls (I eventually had to hide them away in our house); 826 LA provides for all your time-travel needs. What is it that people find so inspirational about the project? Why, all over America, are busy professionals saying to themselves that what they really want to do is to found a non-profit organisation that will require funds, volunteers, grant applications and board meetings for ever and ever?

Partly this is to do with the genius of the idea. Literacy is the key to more or less everything needed for a functioning adult life. According to the National Literacy Trust, 80 per cent of all prisoners in the UK have the writing skills of an 11-year-old or younger; men and women with low reading and writing skills are least likely to be in paid employment by the time they are 30; more than half a million benefit claimants have low literacy and numeracy skills and so on. And we know, of course, where children with low levels of literacy are likely to live, and where they go to school; we know but we are helpless, so we watch as the problems replicate themselves, for generation after generation.

Yet US research has shown that 35 or 40 hours a year of one-on-one tuition can improve a child’s performance by a grade. The 826 model gives able, sparky children with no advantages or privileges whatsoever not only the chance to improve their writing but the opportunity to meet people for whom literacy is the sine qua non of their lives. It also gives volunteers an uncomplicated and enjoyable chance to make a small but significant difference to the kind of child they might otherwise never come across, a child whose natural sense of optimism and limitless possibility will, without intervention, die a slow death. I have yet to meet the person who is against children’s literacy, or who feels that helping kids to write is a waste of an hour; the scale of the problem is shrunk, temporarily at least, to the size of one small human, somebody sitting right opposite you and thoroughly enjoying what he or she is doing.

It’s not just the chance to do good that has inspired 826’s volunteers. Much is down to the charisma and energy of Dave Eggers himself. Eggers was 30 when I first met him 10 years ago, and he’s 13 years younger than me, but no single other person outside my immediate family has had such a profound effect on my career. I mean this in a negative, as well as a positive sense: I wish I had never found out some of the things I have learnt from him – that one’s relationship to one’s own money is more complicated than it appears, for example, and that there’s a lot more to being a successful writer than simply writing.

Eggers is exhaustingly busy. Apart from the eight writing centres and the quarterly, McSweeney’s has a proper publishing arm, as well as two more magazines, Wholpin and The Believer, co-edited by Vendela Vida, Eggers’ wife and a fellow writer. There is also “Voice of Witness”, a series of oral history books about human rights crises, and the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which aims to increase access to education in Sudan, and grew out of Eggers’ extraordinary novel What is the What (2006). The only other writer I can think of with the same kind of reforming zeal is Charles Dickens. But one of the interesting by-products of the 826 process has been the creation of a community of artists who might never have run into each other if they hadn’t been frogmarched into a room and told to do something amusing to raise money. When I have taken part in fundraisers – Eggers is also very hard to turn down, irritatingly – I have found myself on stage with a graphic novelist, or a famous actor, or a band, or maybe even all of them at once; the ethos is to provide entertainment you would want to watch anyway, wherever the admission charge ends up.

Whenever I visited 826 Valencia, I came out determined to do something similar in London; that determination lasted until the moment I got home again, to be faced with the demands of work, family life and a lot of unwatched DVD boxsets. But earlier this year, the young novelist and poet Joe Dunthorne invited me to meet Ben Payne and Lucy Macnab. Payne and Macnab had obtained some funding for a pilot project and had started looking for empty shops. At that point London 826 ceased to be one of those things that, like taking a Greyhound bus across America, or giving up smoking, I would almost certainly do one day but not yet. The energy and determination of Payne, Macnab, Dunthorne and the other volunteers they had already collected cleared the smoke away from the pipe dream, and I found myself living through the early days of the Ministry Of Stories, a tuition centre for eight- to 18-year-olds based on the Eggers model.

So far Londoners are finding the idea every bit as inspiring as San Franciscans and New Yorkers have. Two hundred people have signed up to volunteer through word of mouth alone; for the past month, architects, carpenters and DIYers have given up their time to build the premises. Spreadsheets, laptops and work on planning applications and graphic design have all been given for free, or very cheaply. We know that we have a long, hard road of scrounging and cajoling ahead of us – we will need £1m over the next three years – but the generosity of our volunteers so far has helped persuade us that it’s a road that might take us somewhere.

Our shop is a Monster Supply Store, selling jars of human snot and tins of fear. The human snot is actually organic lemon curd, and the tins of fear contain sweets and tiny, scary, specially commissioned short stories by writers including David Nicholls and Zadie Smith. One of my tasks at the moment is helping to create a monster-themed range of temporary tattoos, a job so alarmingly stimulating that it may well provoke a career crisis.

Behind the shop is a space where up to 30 children can come at any one time, a space that will augment their education while at the same time looking nothing like an orthodox school. We have already started workshops that end with the students receiving printed books with their names on the cover, containing stories that they have written themselves.

We are in Hoxton, just on the edge of the East End, and its position, I think, is an indication of why British cities can provide perfect accommodation for this kind of project. Two minutes’ walk away is a primary school full of children who need all the help they can get with the written word (for many, English isn’t their first language); five minutes down the road, the pubs, clubs and converted warehouses of Shoreditch are full of young designers, artists and writers who may find that their days are not yet as busy as they want to be. A few hundred yards further on, you come to the City banks and law firms, many of which want their staff to become involved in their local community but can’t figure out how.

Unlike, say, LA or even New York, London is a place where rich and poor live within yards of each other. Islington is, by media reputation, full of focaccia and liberal hot air but it’s also the fourth poorest borough in the city and the eighth poorest in the country. Notting Hill is home to several, very different, possibly even antithetical, sets.

The beauty of it is that all you need is empty shops and people with time on their hands. Luckily for us, the political and economic climate over the past few years has been kind. Britain is full of empty shops – we were spoilt for choice when looking for ours. And, regrettably, there are more people in a position to volunteer than is ideal in a healthy economy.

If the Ministry Of Stories in Hoxton works – if we can inspire enough people to help, with their time and money and skills, in the way that we have been inspired by Eggers and 826 – then we want to see other Ministries, on other rundown high streets. We want to challenge the assumption that children who go to a certain kind of school are doomed to a certain kind of failure.

Before our premises were ready, we ran a couple of workshops in local schools, and asked children of all ages what they would want from a Ministry Of Stories. “Glitter pens,” said one child. “I want to be able to write on the walls,” said another. These are modest enough requests, and we will try to oblige.

Some of the other desires, though, were just as humble but hinted at a touching recognition of the kind of lack that inner-city state schoolchildren feel in their lives. “I want space to write,” was one of them; and “I want peace and quiet and a place to think.” Peace, quiet and glitter pens ... it’s all any of us want, really.

Ministry of Stories, 159 Hoxton Street, London N1. http://ministryofstories.org/


How to design a Pirate Store, by Dave Eggers

“When I moved back to San Francisco, we rented this building and the idea was to move McSweeney’s Quarterly and a few other magazines into it as an office (it used to be in my kitchen in Brooklyn) and to share the space with a tutoring centre.

“So we rented it, and the landlord was all for it. We had a Chris Ware mural outside that basically explains the entire history of the printed word in mural form; it takes a long time to digest and you have to stand out in the middle of the road to see it. Everything was great, except then the landlord said, ‘Well, the space is zoned for retail. You’ve got to sell something. You can’t just have a tutoring centre.’ And we couldn’t think of anything to sell.

“The store used to be a weight room, so there were rubber floors below, acoustic tile ceilings, fluorescent lights. We took all that down, and we found beautiful wooden floors, whitewashed beams, and, while we were renovating this place, somebody said, ‘It really looks like the hull of a ship.’ And we looked around and somebody else said: ‘You should sell supplies to the working buccaneer.’ And so this is what we did. We made a pirate supply store.

“I did a sketch on a napkin, and then a great carpenter built all this stuff. We made it look pirate-supply-like, with planks sold by the foot. We have supplies to combat scurvy; we have peg legs that are all handmade and fitted. Up at the top you see the eye-patch display; the black is for everyday use, your regular eye-patch, and then the pastel and other colours are for stepping out at night, special occasions, bar mitzvahs and whatever.

While you’re reading this sign that says ‘Practical Joking with Pirates’, we pull a rope behind the counter and eight mop-heads drop on your head. That was just my one thing, I said, ‘We had to have something that drops on people’s heads.’ And we have a fish theatre, which is just a saltwater tank with three seats. And behind it is the tutoring centre, and then the McSweeney’s office, where all of us would be working on the magazine, and book-editing, and things like that.

Later, the people I used to know in Brooklyn said, ‘Well, why don’t we have a place like that here?’ And a lot of them had been educators, and they combined with local designers, local writers, and they just did their own thing. They didn’t want to sell pirate supplies, they didn’t think that that was going to work there. So, knowing the crime-fighting community in New York, they opened the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company.”

Edited extract of Dave Eggers’ TED Prize 2008 speech (with permission from TED, www.ted.com)

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