Inspired by community centers in New York and worker-owned cooperatives in Argentina, Firestorm co-creators Neala Byrne (aka Kila Donovan) and Libertie Valance started making plans for a new radical community space in Asheville, NC in the Winter of 2007. Little did they know that a major economic recession was just around the corner. Their focus was on the changing face of Asheville, a town with a strong progressive reputation but insufficient grassroots infrastructure and a rapidly gentrifying central business district. And so, perhaps without appreciating the difficulty of what they were attempting, Neala and Libertie enrolled in a fundamentals of business class through Mountain Bizworks and began writing a business plan for a worker-cooperative.
In March of 2008, Neala and Libertie met with members of Red Emma's Coffeehouse and Bookstore, a worker-cooperative in Baltimore. Spurred by encouragement, advice and a donated espresso machine, they returned to Asheville and, within a few weeks, had located a storefront and signed a ten year lease.
On March 30th, a first meeting was held in the newly acquired space and an informal collective of about a dozen local activists was formed. Within two months a radical cafe bookstore was born, which we called Firestorm, a reference to the natural phenomenon in which a fire grows intense enough that it creates and sustains its own wind systems, much as we hoped to create and sustain our work as radicals. Simultaneously, we welcomed the community in for events in the still-empty store, starting with an April 15th performance of "Pirate Songs for Kids" by radical songster David Rovics.
Out of the enormous community effort that opened our doors, we congealed as a formal collective of eight intrepid worker-owners, each of whom would devote the next year of their life to establishing and growing this unique project.
During our first year, we heard over and over again from community members who could remember cooperatives that had come before ours. We didn't know much about these cooperatives, but we were certainly benefiting from their legacy.
Perhaps most notable of our predecessors, Stone Soup had left a lasting impression on the community. Founded in 1975 by social service workers from Allen High School, a Methodist African-American girls' school, Stone Soup was a cooperative restaurant inspired by E.F. Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful." Operating for 19 years, Stone Soup helped to revitalize downtown Asheville while funding community resources such as the Allen Center, a low-cost co-working space for nonprofits. Stone Soup inhabited three different locations before closing shop in 1994.
In 1992, Blue Moon Bakery, a cooperative coffee shop, opened at 60 Biltmore Avenue. Worker-owners managed the popular establishment using consensus decision-making and a horizontal structure reminiscent of that of Stone Soup. The store lasted over a decade, closing in 2005 in the face of an increasingly competitive market.
Activists "working together to sustain a space for the promotion of social change" opened a new storefront in March of 2003. Located at 63 Lexington Avenue, the Asheville Community Resource Center (ACRC) was a massive gallery space that housed numerous grassroots organizations, including the Asheville Global Report and a newly formed Asheville ReCyclery. After their lease was not renewed in 2004, the ACRC spent a year reorganizing before re-opening as a reading room, eventually moving from 16 Caroline Lane to a house at 135 Hilliard Avenue. When the collective running the space finally called it quits in 2006, volunteer burnout and financial stress were cited as the primary cause.
Reborn in West Asheville
Text to be written.