Inspired by community centers in New York and worker-owned cooperatives in Argentina, 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".
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.
Downtown Asheville (2008-2013)
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.
In those early days, a sense of possibility combined with our DIY ethic to create a version of Firestorm that was… expansive. Collective members organized community events, strove to become excellent baristas, stocked and promoted radical literature, became amateur accountants, ran an up-before-dawn bakery operation, booked live performances, and developed an elaborate vegan menu that included made-to-order fare and deli items.
Firestorm became an important place for many people to encounter radical politics and learn collective decision-making. Over the years, the space would host thousands of free events, including presentations by Dennis Banks, Medea Benjamin, Jordan Flaherty, Vicki Law, Cindy Milstein, and Kirkpatrick Sale, teach-ins by international anarchist delegations, The Beehive Collective, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Earth First!, and Mountain Justice Summer, and performances by artists like Taina Asili, Mal Blum, Timbre Cierpke, Defiance, Ohio, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Pat the Bunny, and many others.
We also found time for making trouble. In 2011, Firestorm served as an organizing space for #Occupy Asheville and in 2012 members of our collective helped lead the campaign against a proposed Business Improvement District in downtown Asheville.
Nevertheless, the project failed to stabilize financially due to a combination of low margins, under-capitalization, debt, and other factors. Members received little more than stipend pay and turnover was very high. By 2013, everyone was ready to admit that things weren’t working. Firestorm would have to call it quits or transform radically, and either way it was time to close up shop at 48 Commerce Street.
Reborn in West Asheville (2014-2017)
An extended period of reflection brought us to the idea of opening a new space in West Asheville, where members of our collective and many of our customers already lived. Rather than simply relocate our existing operation, we resolved to learn from our first six years and create something genuinely new. We’d shift our focus from food service to retail, reduce the complexity of our project, and increase worker specialization. A location on Haywood Road—where no other bookstores existed—would be key to this vision.
As it turned out, West Asheville was experiencing a bit of a boom and retail space on Haywood Road was in extremely short supply. It would take us an entire year to identify a suitable location and begin the work of reopening. During that time, our collective shrank to just four members. Forced to find employment elsewhere, we pursued the new vision in our spare time.
When we opened our doors at 610 Haywood Road, we were no longer in a basement or tucked away on a side street. The beautiful, nearly 100 year old building into which we’d moved was spacious enough to double the size of our retail space and add a large office that we would share with two nonprofit partners: the Center for Participatory Change (CPC) and Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción (CIMA). To finance the move, we turned to Shared Capital Coop, Mountain BizWorks, and crowdfunding.
In West Asheville, we grew into our identity as a queer and trans project with an explicitly political agenda. Even more than in downtown, Firestorm became an intergenerational space that offered a home to a vibrant culture of grassroots activity with a community calendar that often featured multiple events per day. In the wake of significant local and national developments, Firestorm was a place where community members could connect to grieve, celebrate, and organize.
During this time, we continued to operate a streamlined cafe but found that many of the troubles we’d experienced downtown—including staff turnover and system complexity—persisted. Moreover, it seemed that new coffee shops were opening all around us and the vegan products we offered were no longer unique. As a result, we were already struggling to break even when North Carolina was hit with an international boycott in 2016. That Fall, we launched a Sustainers Program modeled on one we’d encountered at Modern Times Bookstore Collective in San Francisco. The influx of community support kept our doors open (and continues to be crucial to the success of our project to this day). Nevertheless, by the end of 2017 we were ready to make the final transition away from cafe service.
You Can Fight City Hall (2018-2019)
We’ve joked that Firestorm isn’t Firestorm if it isn’t burned down and rebuilt once every three years or so. The decision to drop a major area of revenue in 2018 was accompanied by a substantial restructuring of our work. We reorganized as a smaller, full-time staff and expanded our bookstore. We hired a dedicated book buyer and built out a new children’s area.
But just as we began settling into a lovely new version of Firestorm, we found ourselves immersed in a public battle over gentrification in West Asheville. For nearly two years, we’d been hosting a weekly outreach program by The Steady Collective, a syringe access program (SAP) funded in part by the County Health Department. In 2019 a campaign of homeless camp evictions escalated tension in our neighborhood over an increasingly visible homeless population, some of whom were IV drug users.
In August, The City of Asheville gave us thirty days to stop hosting The Steady Collective’s two and a half hour weekly event. Zoning citations were similarly delivered to our neighbors, a community center that hosted a free hot lunch on weekdays. Unbelievably, city officials claimed that we were collectively running a “homeless shelter” in violation of zoning code. We resolved to fight the judgement even if it meant risking our business, but thankfully we didn’t have to fight alone. The Steady Collective received national support from Human Rights Watch and AIDS United, twenty-two local physicians penned a statement of support in The Citizen-Times, and with the tireless assistance of a lawyer, we launched our appeal.
The City of Asheville, having miscalculated its hand and placed itself in a seemingly indefensible position, was overwhelmed by the community outcry in support of us and our neighbors. We later learned that the Zoning Administration had to take their phones off the hook in the days leading up to our appeal. We prepared ourselves for a drawn out legal battle, but in early 2019 the City Manager offered to quietly settle the whole affair. The conflict had consumed nine months of our lives, but not a single afternoon with The Steady Collective had been disrupted. We received a private apology and a public acknowledgement that we were not, in fact, a homeless shelter.