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826DC, addressing a critical issue: writing help for Washington students

826DC aims to help encourage creative writing by working with students in Washington.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010

The drinks are flowing and so are the moustaches.

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Michael Phelan's 'stache is formidable (neat, discreet), but so is Oliver Tuesday's (scraggly, scrappy), whose real name is Oliver Uberti, but there's also an Oliver Munday, and when you get 18 or 20 writerly types in the same Dupont Circle bar, someone is going to make a nerdy play on words.

Everyone is playing Moustache Family Feud on this Monday night; Tom Selleck edges out Burt Reynolds for handsomest moustache, and no one can believe that Martin Luther King Jr. was absent from the "wise moustache" category.

"He has," someone shouts, less than soberly, "the wisest moustache I have ever knoooown!"

Later, good news: The fast 'n' furious hair-growing of the Moustache-a-thon fundraiser participants, who took weekly pledges for their hirsute efforts, has resulted in nearly $8,000.

You hear "fundraiser," you don't think "facial hair," just like when you hear "writing center," you don't think "unbridled zaniness!" (Or maybe you do. Congrats!) But things have been known to happen when the beneficiary in question is 826, a national organization dedicated to providing students with free writing help.

There will be whimsy. There will be, later this summer, a "Museum of Unnatural History" store exhibiting, potentially, Hopeless Diamonds and Apathetic Wood -- the distant cousin of Petrified Wood, natch. There will be sightings of the blessed Dave Eggers, the 826 founder, the writer better known for his 2000 memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," a smooth blend of sentiment and sarcasm that made hundreds of thousands of creative writing students go, "Marry me, Dave Eggers!" and then "No one deserves to be that talented! Dave Eggers, I hate you."

826 is coming to Washington.

'It had to feel not like school'

Once upon a time in 2002, Eggers was about to publish his second book, and he was living in San Francisco, and he had a lot of friends who were teachers. "They would talk," he says, "about how keeping up with the writing of 170 students was getting unmanageable -- about how if they could clone themselves, they could meet student needs."

Eggers had already founded the ragtag publishing house McSweeney's, as well as its oddball humor-site counterpart, McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Together with Nínive Calegari, a 10-year veteran public school teacher, he decided to also found 826 Valencia -- named for its location in the Mission District -- a drop-in tutoring center initially staffed with Eggers's creative-type friends. The landlord informed them that in order to comply with the address's commercial designation, Eggers needed to also sell something.

He opened (but of course) a pirate supply store. Last year it took in $240,000, which is respectable when you consider the stock: designer glass eyes, Scurvy Begone, mermaid repellent.

"The concept had to be absurd and unexpected," Eggers says. "It had to feel not like school: weird and fun and offbeat, and unhinge their minds a little bit."

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