Are These America's Underground Youth Training Camps?

A few years ago I stumbled upon an underground movement that was recruiting children right down the street from my condo in Chicago. On a popular pedestrian street, in the middle of daylight, kids would walk into a "storefront" and not come out for hours. Though the public could easily enter through the main doors, the children were nowhere to be found—apparently ushered into some secret back room. I'll tell you right now, it was some sort of strange training camp.

Fast forward to the present—the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles—where I'm currently living a few blocks from Sunset Boulevard. And wouldn't you know it, right there on one of the most famous streets in America, there's another incognito youth recruiting station! This "store" looks completely different and unrelated to the one in Chicago. It looks like an outdated convenience store selling souvenirs and candy. Candy...to lure in the children!

After some detective work, I uncovered eight more of these child-traps masquerading as retail shops littered across the U.S. There are three in California, the one in Chicago, one in Brooklyn, one in Boston, one in Washington D.C. and to my utter shock, one in the delightful downtown of Ann Arbor, Michigan! I went to school in Ann Arbor and must have walked by this place a hundred times—all along thinking it was a toy store. What lures in an innocent child more than a candy shop? A toy store!

They say the best place to hide something is in plain sight. Such is the philosophy of 826 National, the mastermind group behind these facades. Through in-person seminars, 826 advises adults how set up these mantles of deception. But after the seminars, it's up to the individual store owner to come up with a theme for their storefront. Here in Echo Park, the convenience store is called the Time Travel Mart. Pretty innocuous, right? It gets weirder. In Boston it's called The Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute. In Ann Arbor, it's Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair. And in Chicago, The Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Co.

To be honest, if I had kids my curiosity would likely get the best of me and I'd send them inside to check things out. Cruel and irresponsible parenting? Probably not. 'Subversive underground youth training camps'? Well, yes and no. 

826 National is the brainchild of author Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari. And the storefronts... well, they really are fronts for youth training camps. They train children how to be great writers! The network of shops are all in good fun and all meant to inspire curiosity. Anybody can walk in and shop the quirky collection of merchandise; and, if they're not in on the secret, probably walk out feeling a bit confused. Proceeds from the retail shop support the writing programs that take place in the back. Their website explains: 

"Last year our seven 826 chapters served more than 32,000 students. Each 826 chapter offers five core programs: after-school tutoring, field trips, workshops, Young Authors’ Book Project, and in-school programs—all free of charge—for students, classes, and schools. Each program offers innovative and dynamic project-based learning opportunities, building on students’ classroom experience and strengthening their ability to express ideas effectively, creatively, confidently, and in their own voice."

The national organization, along with its local directors, has amassed a long list of awards and accolades in its thirteen years. In 2013, it even won the prestigious Library of Congress Literacy Award.

Sorry to have messed with your mind, but I think 826 National would want it that way. If you're in any of these cities, be sure to stop by the shop and make a purchase to support the kids. You can also support them by shopping online and reading some of the kids' work in the Writing Gallery.