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Store Profile: Firestorm Cafe

Posted on November 10th, 2008 in AK Allies, Store Profiles

I should probably introduce myself first: my name is Kate and I’m a new member of the AK Press project. You’ll find out more about me in my upcoming AK People profile, but the most important thing you should know for now is that, like a lot of folks at AK and in the broader anarchist movement, I am a die-hard infoshop devotee. I’ve worked on infoshop projects around the globe for years now, and I am a firm believer in the centrality of the infoshop as a public institution within the anarchist movement.

I first met the folks who started Asheville’s Firestorm Cafe earlier this year just after NCOR (National Conference on Organized Resistance), when they came to Baltimore for a day to talk with me and other members of the Red Emma’s collective about our project. At that point, Firestorm was just a dream, but I was incredibly impressed by the determination and focus of the folks we met and vowed to keep an eye on their project and do whatever I could to help. For most infoshoppers, starting a new project is an incredibly long road: finding a space, forming a collective, raising funds, writing bylaws, gathering community support, and the million-and-one other things it takes to open and sustain a public space. Imagine my surprise when the fine folks I had met in February managed to do all of that, and open their doors as Firestorm Cafe just four months later. Incredible!

So, when the idea arose of my writing a monthly column about different radical bookstores and infoshops that work with AK Press, Firestorm was at the top of the list. Below you’ll find my interview with Firestorm members Kila and Scott. Be sure to check out the Firestorm website, and visit their store if you’re ever in the Ashville area … I know I will.

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AK: If memory serves, Firestorm Cafe & Books came together pretty quickly, amazingly quickly, in fact! Tell me a little bit about the process: what motivated you to decide to open the space, and what was the process of pulling it together like?

Kila: The Firestorm Collective is comprised of people who have worked on many different community spaces, radical lending libraries and bookstores both inside and outside of Asheville. Our motivation was to create a sustainable radical community event space in downtown Asheville, utilize and promote worker-owned cooperative structures, and support the building of alternative infrastructure to obtain our basic necessities. For maximum impact, we wanted to create an atmosphere that was comfortable for the widest range of people without compromising our other goals. We want to be a community crossroads, a place for dialog and inspiration, and so we welcome diverse backgrounds and views into the space.

Within the last few years Asheville lost the ACRC (Asheville Community Resource Center), the Asheville Global Report and Outspoken Books, all at a time when residents were being hit in a major way by rabid development and gentrification. We all felt Asheville was at an entirely critical point and having a community space like this to support and inspire new groups could change the tide. We have already seen this at work since we opened, and there seems to be a new momentum building here in Asheville.

The project itself had been in planning, research, and preparation stages for years. It was the final stage that happened incredibly quickly; the perfect lease became available months before we were really ready to start. The collective itself came together like a flash and charged through rather insane amounts of physical and mental labor for seven weeks to get the place open. It was like community boot camp! Then we dove straight into the rapids of shift work, bookkeeping, dealing with vendors, inventory, all of the social issues you face in running a public space. We organized art, events, outreach, menus. We had to get management systems up and running, then divide up the tasks and responsibilities more equally among the owners. We’re still in a sort of recovery period from what it took to get up and running that fast! But we pulled it off as a collective and have a remarkably stable, dedicated, creative group of people moving this forward.

AK: Do you have a specialization in your book selection?

Kila: This region (southern Appalachia) has a long history of do-it-yourself localized independent thinking and living. There are thousands of craftspeople producing pottery, blankets, iron tools, musical instruments, etc. There are dozens of intentional communities and land-based projects, lots of organic farming, appropriate technology development, primitive skillshares, co-ops. We have herbal medicine schools, beekeeping schools, folk schools, natural building workshops, permaculture courses. The book selection at Firestorm features this focus on practical applications, linking it with an explicitly anti-authoritarian worldview. So, you will find a lot of information on alternative economics, local ecology, environmental sustainability, regional history and holistic health care. Oh, and we have a spectacular Pirates & Ninjas section!

AK: Do you feel like Firestorm is a part of the loosely-defined infoshop movement in the U.S.?

Scott: I definitely think that the collective views itself as part of the infoshop movement and is eager to collaborate with sister projects. At the same time, some of us are also interested in pushing the limits of the infoshop model by embracing our role as an anti-capitalist business. Unlike a lot of infoshops, which try to exist outside the market in a sort of underground capacity, we are deliberately competing with capitalist enterprises. In part, this is a practical decision–too many libertarian projects go under because of financial pressures, volunteer burnout, and short sightedness. Working from a business plan, maintaining high standards, and compensating labor lends stability to the cafe and expands the range of people who can participate.

Additionally, the approach is influenced by a belief that anarchism can and should win ground by out-competing capitalism. Rather than cede economic territory to capital, we can contest it and demonstrate the effectiveness of cooperative economic principles while building momentum. Workers’ cooperatives can provide us with both valuable resources in the present and a starting point from which we can begin to envision a libertarian future.

AK: What are the benefits of having a network of loosely defined autonomous spaces?

Scott: Firestorm clearly owes its existence to the infoshop movement. Even beyond the inspiration that infoshops provide, we were able to get a lot of advice and even material support from other projects. Red Emma’s in particular was really generous. They even gave us an espresso machine. So when you order a latte at Firestorm, the drink you receive is a product of infoshop solidarity!

We are excited about returning the favor and hope that we can similarly assist new spaces that haven’t yet been born. We’ve already had several people inquire about our model and indicate an interest in replicating it.

AK: What sort of things might one expect to find at Firestorm Cafe? It’s both a bookstore and a cafe, as well as an events space, right?

Kila: It’s a big space (2100 sqft) so we have room to host several worlds. Because we’ve deliberately avoided tying the space to any one subculture, we’ve created an atmosphere that doesn’t alienate many people. You’ll regularly see homeless people and yuppies, toddlers and elderly, traveler kids and students hanging out in the same space. We have a comfy booky area, a kid’s chalkboard, community boards, and an Asheville LETS (Local Exchange Trading System) trade board. We have free internet terminals, condoms, and literature. There is a stage at the back for night time events and a curtain which sections off a room throughout the day for meetings and workshops. We serve espresso, panini, tempeh gyros, wraps, and baked goods we make in the space, loose leaf organic teas, etc.

We’ve only been open a few months, but we are already getting booked up solid with events. Firestorm has a weekly movie night where we screen documentaries and other consciousness-raising movies (followed by discussion), a weekly Celtic Jam, poetry slams, local acoustic music, game nights, author events, panel discussions. We host Copwatch meetings, Veterans for Peace, groups fighting development, AA meetings…

This weekend [back at the beginning of October] we are hosting the 2008 Grassroots Media Tour with Jen Angel, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Puck Lo. The existence of Firestorm made it easy to host this tour and it probably wouldn’t have come to Asheville if we weren’t here to do it.

AK: Is there a specific political project or a set of concerns that guides the Firestorm project?

Scott: The project is informed by our experience with anarchist practice as a successful organization model. For myself and Kila, traveling in Argentina after its economic collapse in 2001, we got a glimpse of what a societal shift towards cooperativism might look like in the United States. We were impressed by both the prevalence of workers’ self-management and the post-crash emergence of participatory decision making in mainstream society. Back in the US, we had the pleasure of witnessing the rebirth of Baltimore’s Black Planet Books as Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse, an infoshop that I think has successfully dreamed outside of the subculture box.

For us, brushes with anarchist success stories combined early on with an interest in dual power strategy–an approach to revolution in which communities establish alternative political, economic, and social institutions to directly compete with the dominant society’s infrastructure. A good community space has the potential to serve as a sort of dual power laboratory–a place where people and ideas normally isolated from one another collide, fueling the birth and growth of libertarian projects. And the cafe itself is a sort of alternative institution that, we hope, will serve as a model for the style of collaboration that we’d like to see others in our community adopt.

AK: Tell me a little bit about your structure. Is Firestorm a collective? How do you keep the space running on a day-to-day basis?

Kila: Our structure was based off of the model of Red Emma’s in Baltimore (merging of cafe with community space / infoshop). We are worker-owned (currently have ten owners and two interns). Ownership is based on labor, not capital investment. We are not-for-profit (once we reach a living wage for owners and paid interns, we will return any profits to the community through a grant program to support similar projects). We are a collective that operates entirely by consensus, which has been an incredible process for such a complex project. We are self-managed and have had to develop some innovative systems to break up tasks and responsibilities in such a way to avoid the trappings of having de facto managers. Each owner is required to participate in one management team (bookkeeping, ordering, or baking), one working group, and have at least one regular shift per week. We feel that a self-managed work force is much more effective than top down management. This assertion was strongly validated when we got our first sanitation score: 101, which is pretty much totally unheard of in the cafe / restaurant world. That was accomplished with no managers or bosses yelling orders, but by a group of people who cared about the place and put everything they had into it. The cafe basically runs by all of us adhering to consensed upon checklists (opening, closing, inventory, daily tasks), participation in management teams and each owner or intern operating on their own initiative to take care of things they see need to be done. It is a true collective in that, any one or group of us can leave for a few days knowing that the place will still go. That’s an incredible accomplishment after only a few months of being open.

AK: Any advice you’d offer to other independent and radical bookstore projects just getting started?

Kila: The first week we opened, someone asked me how long we had been open. I said “One week. And we’ll be here for ten years.” I could say that with confidence because of three things: planning, commitment, and money management. These are things we have seen lacking (and often shunned) in so many anarchist projects, and yet so many disappear because of weakness in these areas.

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Firestorm Cafe & Books

48 Commerce Street in Asheville, NC

Open 10am to 11pm every day.