Writers Club Coworking: A Space Designed to Help Writers Write

Providence, RI

Contact Name
Anne Holland
Project Dates
June-October 2018
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Tags
Placemaking/placekeeping, Entrepreneurship, Downtown preservation/main streets, Design
Writers, illustrators and podcasters generally work alone, in home offices, at odd hours, and for very little money. What Cheer Writers Club launched in 2018 because as ‘The Creative Capital’ Providence should support ALL the arts.   How do you design space for focused, individual work? What types of seating, sounds and even scents help writers write? And how do you convince hundreds of often shy people to come over and become a community?   Discover how the Club beta-tested its design to provide the perfect place to write. Plus, you’ll learn the Club’s biggest design mistake, outreach lessons learned and how a simple sidewalk sandwich board made all the difference. Includes what writers want from local community, pricing for broke creatives and dealing with poets.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
Most writers who couldn't focus in their home offices (due to loneliness or distractions) had no place to go beyond noisy coffee shops or public libraries with less-than-comfortable chairs and limited hours. The state's few coworking spaces are relatively expensive and hard to concentrate in due to settings meant more for entrepreneurs and small teams rather than individual creators. They are also not staffed in the evenings or weekends.

The Club's goal was to create an affordable space that was optimal to helping content creators focus and write or illustrate. A key challenge was to make it affordable - but by including a classroom and meeting space in the project which we rent to third parties at market prices, and by registering as a 501c3 nonprofit, we are able to cover some of our costs and thus bring down the cost of coworking to match a typical writer's ability to pay.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
Local writers helped us select seating and desks - they literally came, sat and gave their opinions on various floor models. Local writers who acted as our beta testers June-October also taught us about the critical importance of silence for their work - we made some significant changes to construction specifications including special ceiling tiles, insulation, white noise machines and a phone room, entirely due to their input.

Providence Community Library Booksale volunteers, particularly those at the city's Knight Memorial branch, helped us source and afford the 1,000+ books for the member library, including hundreds of books on the craft of writing and autobiographies of writers, as well as other useful reference books.

More than two dozen area artists, such as award-winning children's book illustrator Kelly Murphy, provided much of the unique art for the club's walls, including a custom 14' long mural featuring our most beloved local buildings. Local architect Charlotte Handy handled the structural design. The team at Providence Picture Frame, America's second-oldest framing company, framed our art, helped with mural production and assisted us create a gallery-type wall in the seating nook.

Writers spend so much time indoors that we felt fresh flowers would help them feel creatively alive. Local florist Semia, who is known for sourcing as much of her stock as possible from area flower farmers rather than relying on imports, delivers fresh bouquets weekly for key spaces.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
We hope that the space helps two kinds of community - the first is the community of writers themselves who had not had a place where they might bump into each other routinely - by the water cooler (literally.) The second is by constructing a creative space in the heart of a city's downtown which is increasingly filled with places to live - many office buildings are transitioning to apartments - but few places to work peacefully within the context of a community.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
We visited mainstream coworking spaces in RI and MA, and in part learned what not to do for our community who are different from typical workers and 'start-ups'. We were inspired by libraries (our lamps for example are based on lamps from a public library in SF) and most especially by our local landmark the Providence Athenaeum, a library which is notable for having small wooden desks tucked into its stacks. Lastly, we spoke with managers of and toured other shared workspaces for other types of creatives - such as folks at the Providence Art Club, AS220, Ajay Land Company, Hope Artiste Village and the Steelyard.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
We raised funds from private donors for the main construction project. We hired an architect who then assisted us with hiring a local contractor. We beta-tested chairs and desk-types in our initial office space during construction (June -October 2018) to determine what worked best for writers. After initial feedback from writers, we hired a sound control consultant to advise us on technology and construction to suppress noise. We commissioned an original mural from a local artist to serve as the focal point of the room. We worked with volunteers at the local library booksales who gave us advice and access, in order to create a collection of 1,000+ useful books for writers. Lastly, other local writing-related organizations including writers groups and nonprofit educational classes for writers, helped us get the word out about our opening party so that a record breaking 125 writers came and considered working at the Club.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
We had not initially realized how important sound suppression would be for the room, and had to switch to a special brand of ceiling tiles very late in the build out. This delayed our opening by two weeks and increased costs, but was well worth it.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Doing construction and having large furniture deliveries in a city are never easy. We also were worried we would not be able to find enough writers and content creators to work downtown - both because we have no parking and because no one knew how many writers there were in the state.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
We were fortunate in our neighbors - a bank and a law firm. On one occasion when we couldn't get a furniture delivery upstairs, three national guardsmen who were walking by leapt to our rescue! Local writing-related groups such as Goat Hill, Frequency Writers and the RI branch of NaNoWriMo were also incredibly helpful about getting the word out to the community about our project.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
Have a great lawyer negotiate your lease. Assume construction will take 30% longer and run 20% more than all estimates. Sit in chairs and at desks before buying them. Make sure you have chairs for ALL body types - including heavy, petite and tall people. This takes a lot of extra work because standard chairs (for example) often don't work for heavier people.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Since we opened Oct 30th 2018, more than 50 writers have joined the Club, many of them specifically for coworking. Given how broke writers are, our heavily discounted pricing has had a real impact - some members tell us they could not afford anywhere else. We are also attracting writers from a variety of demographics, including POC and a range of ages. This is heartening.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
So far we have a great deal of anecdotal evidence that people are able to get more writing done in our space than they could at home or at other spaces available to them. Already thousands of words have been written that otherwise might not have been. Plus, writers are having an easier time meeting their publisher's edit deadlines.
How did you measure this success or progress?
We measure how many writers visit, how many sign up to work here, and how many hours they actually spend working here. We also note which working spaces are the most popular (the private nooks are always taken first). And we ask writers how the space is helping their work.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
We hadn't expected how much famously introverted writers would love to talk to each other. When we have had community events in the space, they erupt into conversation, often with writers they hadn't met before. Then, it can be hard to get people to leave at the end of the event ;-).
CCX Workshop Handout