The past year has been inhospitable to most new small businesses; even many of those that got off to a strong start before the recession kicked in have now found themselves ailing. One local business that’s bucked the trend is Firestorm Café & Books, and to hear the owners tell it, that success is due to community support and the nature of the establishment’s work force.
At Firestorm, you see, the workers are the owners and the owners are the workers. Founded a year ago at 48 Commerce St. in downtown Asheville, Firestorm is a worker-owned cooperative that sells food and drinks as well as books, magazines and art, while also serving as a venue for all manner of community events and performances.
“We’ve hosted everything from herbal trade fairs to gospel performances and economics forums to anarcha-feminist films,” Thad Eckard, one of 10 worker-owners, explains in a press release announcing special events to mark Firestorm’s first birthday.
“Where downtown would otherwise be lacking a community space, Firestorm exists,” adds Kila Donavan, another worker-owner. “We are aiming to provide Asheville with a space that’s accessible to everyone, regardless of economic disposition.”
Of course, like any startup, Firestorm has faced some challenges to its own economic disposition, particularly given the troubled state of the nation’s economy. But the worker-owners maintain that their model, which stresses sharing power—and duties—in the workplace along with consensus-based decision-making, has given their small business a leg up. Firestorm, notes Donavan, differs from most service-industry establishments in that “The risks, responsibilities and successes of the business are shared among all the workers.”
“This sort of management takes longer,” worker-owner Marcello Lanfranci concedes. “But the result is always better decisions than any one boss could make,” he maintains.
True to form, Firestorm will hold an unconventional, cooperatively minded birthday bash on Saturday, May 30. The daylong series of events kicks off at 10 a.m. with two hours of kids’ activities. Then, from 2 to 5 p.m., Firestorm staff will lead an “intercooperative dialogue” with members of other co-ops (and anyone else who’s interested in participating) about the burgeoning co-op movement in Western North Carolina.
The goal of the session, organizers say, is to plant the seeds of a new cooperative of cooperatives, so to speak, that would offer mutual support, advice and other resources.
After all the serious talk, several acts will provide live music from 8 to 11 p.m.
For more information, visit www.firestormcafe.com or call 255-8115.