I early June, our co-operative was contacted by Michelle Hart (@mhmhart42) of Oprah Daily in regards to an upcoming piece on queer-owned bookstore. Since the short interview conducted with a Firestorm Collective member wasn't used in the resulting article, we're publishing it here!
Michelle (Oprah Daily): Asheville is an interesting place—a fairly progressive pocket of blue in a red state. What is your relationship like to the community? How do you see your store in relation to the rest of North Carolina?
Libertie (Firestorm): Our experience is that the red/blue model for U.S. politics doesn’t hold up. Even in this polarized environment we see that members of our community and our region are socially and politically complex and capable of connecting across identities. Growing up queer in rural North Carolina taught me that some of my best allies might have religious and political beliefs very different from mine.
Our bookstore is probably what you would consider very far Left, but we’re patronized by all kinds of folks. At the same time, we’ve experienced negative attention from both homophobic conservatives, who’ve accused us of brainwashing children, and progressive city officials, who don’t like that we support harm reduction services for queer folks experiencing homelessness and/or using drugs. It’s complicated!
Michelle: You mentioned that LGBTQ people in Southern Appalachia tend to get overlooked, so I’m curious what people in more metropolitan areas can do to support our friends in the south?
Libertie: It’s really important that queer folks in the South be both acknowledged and treated as authorities on our own experiences. In 2016, when North Carolina was the target of an international boycott over a transphobic “bathroom bill,” our co-op was severely impacted by the loss of LGBTQ and ally visitors. We almost closed. It felt like we were being victimized twice: once by the state government and again by progressives who hadn’t even considered us.
One in three U.S. LGBTQ people live in the South and queer people are at the center of our region’s cultural and political life. We’re not just in the big cities! If you’re outside the South, you can still support organizations like Southerners On New Ground, which brings together poor and working class, immigrant, POC, and rural queers to make change.
Michelle: How have the virtual author events been with regard to generating engagement and sales?
Libertie: Doing events online has been a challenging transition with a lot of rewards! Before COVID-19, we typically had one or two dozen attendees at author events, and fewer at book clubs. Our community room only comfortably seats around 30. But over the last year, we’ve regularly had 60 to 100 people sign up for our events, and attendees join in from across borders and timezones. We haven’t yet resumed in person events, but when we do we hope to continue engaging folks at a distance with livestreams and recorded content. You can check out some of our recent author talks on our YouTube channel.
Michelle: How has the process of reopening been for you?
Libertie: The week before we reopened we threw a big outdoor party for ourselves, to celebrate our thirteenth birthday and pandemic survival. So many people turned up! And over the course of a few hours we raised a thousand dollars for Asheville Prison Books and Tranzmission Prison Project, a volunteer program that sends free books to incarcerated members of the LGBTQ community. It felt amazing to come back with so much energy.
The biggest hurdle for reopening was reintegrating in-person shopping with the e-commerce systems we’d developed while closed for fourteen months. We hope that we’ll be able to have the best of both worlds now.
Michelle: Lastly, I’ve been doing this job for almost four years now, and, as a queer writer myself, I feel like I’ve noticed a kind of gradual sea change in the prominence of queer literature, especially in the adult literary fiction space—writers like Kristen Arnett, Brandon Taylor, Garth Greenwell, Torrey Peters, etc. I’m curious as to whether that is something you or your store has noticed too?
Libertie: Absolutely. Queer authors writing queer stories are now being read by extremely diverse audiences. For the first time, I think it is possible to simultaneously be a general interest bookstore and a gay bookstore, something almost unimaginable twenty years ago.
Michelle: If there’s anything you’d like to say or add, please feel free! As a writer, reader, and member of the LGBTQ community, I’m very thankful places like Firestorm exist, and I’d love to know how to spread the word!
Libertie: Thanks for including us in your piece! If readers want to stay connected to us, they can follow our co-op on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok @firestormcoop. We offer $1 shipping on most book orders.