About 50 people squeezed into Firestorm Café and Books on Feb. 19 to talk about the café’s upcoming relocation and restructuring. Firestorm’s worker-owners were expecting a fraction of that turnout, but greeted all attendees and invited them to get coffee and snacks and join in discussions about the collective’s future.
On March 1, Firestorm will close its Commerce Street location, and while the worker-owners are looking for a bigger space in West Asheville, it’s uncertain where that will be or when it will open.
Attendees included former members of the Firestorm collective, grassroots activists who’ve used the space to coordinate meetings and even a few people who had never been the café before. The meeting opened with a song, led by one of the original founders, Neala Byrne (aka Kila Donovan). As the verses repeated, more and more of the crowd joined in on the sing-along until it almost everyone took part — demonstrating how this little café has brought community together over the years.
Firestorm opened in downtown Asheville in March 2008 as a self-proclaimed anarchist café, bookstore and community space (“a radical cafe bookstore was born,” says Firestorm’s “project history” online).
Libertie Valance, one of the collective’s founders, described the early days as a labor of love shared by a large group of people. Valance and Donovan kickstarted the idea of a community space — a free place for anarchists, activists and grassroots organizations of any kind to gather and meet other like-minded people in the community, free from judgment or oppression. “There were a lot of people, a core of maybe nine people, but this space was really launched by a community,” Valance said. “There were probably 20 or 30 people who made material and/or labor contributions to open up this space.”
Opened on a budget of $30,000 and a donated espresso machine, without tables or even all of the equipment needed to run a café, Firestorm aimed to be a space that supported the continued survival of community groups in Asheville, which were being relegated to meeting in church basements on the outskirts of town, said Valance.
Several attendees introduced themselves, and shared what Firestorm and its community-based mission have meant to them over the years.
“The whole rest of the world is crazy sometimes,” said one. “This space feels to me like proof that there is hope. I like the phrase ‘seeds beneath the snow’ — the world’s a cold place, but it’s not hopeless.”
Others praised Firestorm’s cooperative model and the inclusiveness, and talked about all of the friends they’ve met through Firestorm. And most expressed excitement for the collective’s eventual rebirth and growth in West Asheville. The goal: Instead of creating a new café, expand the literature selection and offer a bigger space for gatherings and events.
“This [downtown] space has served us really well,” said worker-owner Julie Schneyer. “It was great to grow in, but we definitely feel like we need more space to dedicate, specifically, to the bookstore. That’s kind of the physical aspect of the space.
“Geographically, we feel like downtown is changing, for sure, and West Asheville is a place that — a lot of people who come here live there — [is] a little bit more residential,” she continued. “It’s not a crossroads like downtown is.”
With an eye to maintaining community involvement, Firestorm organizers had attendees fill out surveys about what kind of impact the move will have on them and what they’d like to see in Firestorm’s next evolution. Poster boards were taped to the walls, providing a way for attendees to list their suggestions. Everyone’s ideas were welcomed and nothing was dismissed outright.
Attendees also discussed Firestorm’s proposed Anti-Oppression Statement, which defines oppressive behavior as “any behavior that marginalizes, threatens, harms or silences an individual or group, with the support of cultural or institutional force.” The declaration also serves as a commitment from the organization to counter oppression within its space and beyond, while creating a more welcoming and accessible community forum. It also acknowledges past challenges.
“Within both our space and our collective, a history of oppressive behaviors has caused enormous harm to our work, our personal health and our reputation in the radical milieu,” the document states. “Over the course of our project’s life, these dynamics have caused numerous collective members to leave and many potential allies to seek community, coffee and encounter elsewhere.”
“Other forms of abuse that don’t fit this definition should be somehow mentioned,” one participant suggested. “Because I feel like saying that oppressive behavior that is ‘supported by cultural or institutional support’ may lead some people to think … behavior that is abusive but does not have support of cultural or institutional force is acceptable here.
“Someone who comes in here and gets taunted for being ‘square’ is also bad, as the opposite is bad, and I would like to see neither happen.”
Suggestions included widening the definition of oppression, coming up with a summary of the document and adding a structure for ongoing feedback.
Organizers will hold another community meeting for further discussion of the anti-oppression statement — tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, March 5.
When will the new space open?
“We’re shooting for June or July, ideally,” Schneyer said.
Meanwhile, Firestorm plans to celebrate, first at a Feb. 28 send-off party and later in conjunction with the Mountain Justice event. “We’re going to have a party,” Schneyer said. “It’s going to be like this, but all of these people will be dancing to music rather than filling out surveys.”
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