Taking steps back in time, pushing education forward

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Although supplies for a sufficient trans-era journey are hard to come by, the Time Travel Mart in Echo Park covers all one needs to be transported as far back as the prehistoric age. A fresh dinosaur egg sells for $9.99. For life’s more recent regrets, one can purchase “five more minutes on your expired meter” for only $4.99. The small plastic jar contains a single quarter with the instructions, “Go back five minutes, insert quarter into traffic meter, smile at approaching parking enforcement officer. Not valid before 1796.”

The Time Travel Mart is neither just a gag shop nor is it a mere tribute to past eras or crazy Angeleno delusion. Along with grants and donor funds, the store finances 826LA, whose tutoring, educational services are free to all students. The store front is a portal to the nonprofit tutoring and writing center for kids ages 6 to 18.

For the same low price as “five more minutes on your expired meter,” one can buy “The Correct Answer” for a variety of situations, with the same instructions to return to five minutes ago with the correct answer .The store carries everything from robot’s milk consisting of a glass jar filled with sugar to a mini Duraflame log for salvaged romance to actual relics of the past, like a ’90s slap bracelet. The store represents much more than profit; it is the first impression visitors have of 826LA and its position on a busy street in the community.

“We have a lot of different roles. We’re the face to the community for 826LA, we’re also a fully functioning store, in which everything is for sale that has a price tag,” store manager Lauren Rock said. “We also are kind of like a museum I feel. There’s always something to look at and something to read and it’s a fun place to bring people from out of town. It’s a fun place to visit, it’s not just your regular store that you’re going to go shopping in; you’re going to have an experience here too.”

The store draws in curious shoppers from the street, the Internet or word of mouth. Unless customers are familiar with the creator, author Dave Eggers, and recognize his publications displayed on the wall, nothing on the store’s exterior or interior hints at the tutoring center behind the door in the corner. The store clerk asks curious browsers what era they’re looking to travel to and points out a couple choice goods as their eyes flit around the innocuous shelves, searching for the final punchline. Eventually, the clerk reveals the premise, often to the delight of the customers. 826LA derives many of its volunteers from intrigued passersby.

“It’s become an important part of our model because of that, and I think that just having a sort of odd, unique space at the front of our building sets a nice tone for what we do here,” Echo Park location volunteer outreach and Support Assistant Laura Rosof said. “People walk into the store and they know that they’re some place different and special.”

The unusual facade complements 826LA’s mission. It provides ample material for students’ writing and re-brands the concept of tutoring. After passing through the small, gaudy yellow store, students enter a room with a vaulted ceiling and exposed beams, 20-foot high brick walls, and many solid, square wood tables and silver chairs with old intricate carpet underneath.

On one wall, a gallery of frames hold short poems or tidbits of wisdom such as, “If you eat too many Hot Cheetos one part of your stomach could melt.”

The space looks like anything but a classroom. According to Rock, kids build confidence from entering this quirky space and by getting their writing published through the programs.

“It’s kind of like this magical third place; it’s not home, it’s not school, it’s like a kind of creative, safe space,” Rock said. “It shows them that we invite whimsy here.”

Psychology major Emily Fowler (senior) currently interns at 826LA after volunteering there last summer. She primarily helps during the day planning and executing programs for local elementary and middle school classes that come in on field trips. Students also attend 826LA after school for tutoring across all subjects. After finishing their homework, kids receive a prompt and practice their creative writing.

“We did a field trip last week where they ended up writing an ode to one of the pieces from the store, like the kids got to go pick an item from the store and write a poem about it, which was cute,” Fowler said.

826LA has gained popularity since its establishment in 2008. The organization now has a wait list and requires students to enroll in their workshops rather than drop in. Because they are saturated with students, Rock emphasized that they are always looking for volunteers to help achieve a onetoone ratio of students to teachers in their programs.

Although 826 chapters with equally inventive store fronts exist in seven other cities around the country, L.A.’s locations, particularly capitalize on local creative minds and embrace the energy of the city. The advisory board includes big Hollywood names such as director Spike Jonze, musician Fiona Apple and producers J. J. Abrams and Judd Apatow. Rosof attributes their stars’ interest in 826LA and its mission to the common foundation of storytelling that drives both movies and writing.

“We don’t emphasize film with our programs but we do emphasize storytelling and expressing ideas; being able to express your thoughts through words. And I think that what gets a lot of those types of people excited is that we’re developing the next generation of storytellers,” Rosof said.

In the front corner of the Echo Park store, an installation commemorating the L.A. of the future and the past is the only section specifically referencing the greater area around 826LA. Although few products reference the organization’s setting, the time travel theme of L.A.’s chapters fits a city steeped in artifacts of previous generations but also undergoing significant gentrification and change.

“I feel like Los Angeles has a lot of time travel in it,” Rock said. “We’re right next to Angeleno Heights which has these beautiful Victorian homes, but then we also are this mecca of innovative technology.”

826LA personifies the liaison for students between these two sides of L.A. and the agent that ushers them toward all the possibilities that L.A. and their writing represent.