The sign out front reads "The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company" and claims to be the "One Stop for All Your Foe-Battling Needs." The store, in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, is actually the home to 826NYC — a nonprofit center that helps kids with creative writing.
Past the mannequins wearing the latest in crime-fighting attire, tucked behind a hidden door, there's a spacious room filled with bookshelves, couches and tables.
"I think when you walk into that space, your imagination just kind of explodes," says volunteer Katey Parker. "Everything seems possible when you're walking through a superhero supply store."
There are 826 organizations in seven U.S. cities: Brooklyn, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Ann Arbor, Mich. They get their name from the street address of the first center, started by writer Dave Eggers at 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Each has a whimsical storefront: In Seattle there's a space travel theme, Chicago's is a top-secret spy store. With a small staff and an army of volunteers, they offer free tutoring and homework help.
"In a time when everyone is bemoaning the decline in literacy," says writer George Saunders, "826 is an incredibly innovative, energetic way to say to kids that language is power."
Saunders was one of 23 authors who contributed to a short story anthology called The Book of Other People. Proceeds from sales of the book, edited by award-winning author Zadie Smith, benefited 826NYC.
The 826 sites regularly host school field trips. One recent morning, 19 third-graders from P.S. 250 in Williamsburg were welcomed into the Superhero Supply store, then taken two-by-two through a secret doorway into the reading space. Each student dons a pair of Clark Kent-style glasses for an official "author photo" before sitting down on a rug at the far end of the room, facing Parker.
Parker tells them that all the employees of the Mildew Publishing Company are in a predicament. She describes the unseen taskmaster of a boss, "Mr. Mildew," as gross, scary, stinky and living 17 basements below the store. He's demanded that (coincidentally) he needs 19 original stories by that afternoon or all the employees will be fired.
The children volunteer to help write those stories and, making all of their decisions by consensus, the elements of their stories start to develop. While one 826 volunteer provides illustrations on a sketchpad and easel, another transcribes the work-in-progress on a computer, which is projected onto a screen in the front of the room.
The story they come up with is both convoluted and original:
Ashley and Tony are 15-year-old twins who live in a mansion on a farm in Puerto Rico. They live with a butler named Henry and an over-sized fish named Jerry. The twins are telekinetic, which comes in handy when Henry decides he's going to steal money from the safe in the mansion's basement.
The story progresses to a cliff-hanger moment, at which point the students start busily writing and illustrating their own endings.
Parker says that even classes that start out kind of subdued will usually "really burst out at some point during this particular workshop, and just get crazy and creative. It's inspiring for us."
The kids finish up their stories, which are then printed and bound with their individual ending and illustration, with their own bespectacled author photo on the back cover.
They've met the deadline and all the stories have been approved by the reclusive Mr. Mildew. The third-graders head back to school, and the volunteers straighten up the room. At the Brooklyn location alone, there's a roster of more than 650 volunteers, who help out in field-trip workshops like this one, special events and tutoring — fighting for truth, justice and creativity.