Surviving at a Distance

Surviving at a Distance

April 8th, 2020

It has been about a month since we closed our doors and it feels like we're just starting to get a handle on "the new normal." While there is so much to explore in our present moment, this post is being made to share the possibly dry details of our co-operative's survival.

Operational Changes

Firestorm closed its doors on March 16th, almost two weeks before Buncombe County issued a "shelter in place" order. We weren't the first business in Asheville to make the call, but we did so in part because we felt we had an obligation to model an appropriate response to the impending health crisis. We continued to fulfill online orders and experimented with discounted shipping, curbside pickup, and local deliveries.

On March 20th, we unanimously agreed to furlough all staff—there are only four of us—at a general meeting. We estimated at the time that doing so was necessary to avoid financial ruin over the next two months during which we did not anticipate reopening. We additionally agreed to renegotiate payment of loans, our lease, and accounts payable to corporate vendors. Our priority would be ensuring that we continued to have the resources necessary to reopen at the end of the pandemic.

Online Sales

Informing our initial assessment of our viability within the crisis was the novelty of web sales for our co-operative. After years of delay, we launched e-commerce functionality at in October of 2019. Over five months we had received and fulfilled only two hundred orders, primarily during our shirt pre-order campaign. Based on this, we estimated that we could count on around $300 in sales per week. Not a big lift considering our dependence on in-store sales of around $700 per day.

As it turns out, we were selling ourselves short and our community turned out in numbers! Over the last month we've seen our web sales grow to over $300 a day. While this is not enough to rehire ourselves yet, it is an impressive feat. Much of the patronage was driven by social media posts we made, but we also received a large number of referrals from community members.

To support continued growth in online sales, we've upgraded our ordering and fulfillment infrastructure. We invested in new packaging materials, cross-trained our collective, fixed bugs on our website, and documented best practices.

Other Financial Considerations

Ultimately, web sales may be only a small part of our survival. We've had numerous community members show up for us as new Sustainers on Patreon, and two individuals made significant, unsolicited donations to our co-operative. This has helped us pay bills, but more importantly, raised our spirits and assured us that there is a big community which believes in Firestorm.

Although it has been devastating to lose many of our biggest sales opportunities of the year (including school book fairs, UNCA campus events, and now it seems the Medicines from the Earth Herb Symposium), we are fortunate to be eligible for relief through the CARES Act and have applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Relief Loan. We are aware that these resources are not available to many in our community, including individuals with felony convictions, undocumented workers, sex workers, and others hustling off the books.

Towards Experimentation

As we head into our second month of crisis, our co-operative is beginning to think beyond economic survival and consider what Firestorm might look like in a world that doesn't go "back to normal." This includes experimentation with virtual events as well as a new consideration of our relationship to local mutual aid work.

Virtual events are particularly interesting both because of their potential to reach a large audience and the new technological challenges they introduce. Our co-operative has previously dipped its toes into online content creation (see, for example last year's podcast series) but never done live events online. In March, our first attempt was a learning experience—we were "Zoombombed" by racist trolls. For now we're organizing just two recurring events online, a writers group and a book club, but we're also planning to participate in the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance's new Reader Meet Writer series. This multi-bookstore event series has a side effect of leveling the playing field between smaller indies like Firestorm and bigger stores like Malaprop's—because events are location agnostic, publishers won't have to choose between a store that can sell two hundred books and a shop that can sell twenty.