A Firestorm of cooperation

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.

Not just a café: The bulletin board at Firestorm Café records the dozens of local events and performances there.
Photo by Jonathan Welch

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.

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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23 thoughts on “A Firestorm of cooperation

  1. Scott

    Tim: Thanks for the link! That is an excellent example of one of the innumerable off-beat events that would not have happened without Firestorm. I really enjoyed some of the dialog it spurred – especially on the second night (at which I was in attendance).

  2. Robert Malt

    Wow! How refreshing! Firestorm has provided a great opportunity for dialogue in such a desperate economic time! Co-operative business is on the up and up– shedding light upon the tired soon-to-be corpse of capitalist dominance. Thanks Firestorm for holding strong, for providing delicious foods, for keeping the grounds fertile for grassroots change in Asheville!

  3. Tony Fraga

    Firestorm’s survival stands as a testament to the strength of voluntary collective alternatives to a world otherwise dominated by authoritarian individual power. I can only hope that Firestorm’s success means a turn in the traditional capitalist mode of production where the few elite enjoy passively profiting off the labor of the working class. Recent popularity of worker-owned businesses means the dawning of a new day where people have to work for what they have instead of getting making their money from rent, interest rates and stocks. Viva La Revolución!

  4. hauntedheadnc

    Careful… If things like this are too successful, people won’t be able to complain that Asheville has lost its edge and become a generic anywhere, and if they can’t complain, about half the city’s population of hippies and hipsters will lose all purpose in their life.

  5. Spontaneous organization and social cooperation within the framework of a rule of law that protects individual rights. especially property rights, is the definition of the economic liberty that is only possible in a free market capitalist economy. Firestorm is doing nothing more than exploiting this political-economic model. Firestorm is a business that is based on capitalism. Thank goodness and bravo.

  6. another supporter

    and doing so without investors or absentee owners to reap (steal) benefits without putting in their own labor.
    doing so whilst providing a free space for anyone to congregate without being judged by the amount of money we can lay down.
    doing so while the rest of our capitalist economy is falling into ruins around us (how many restaurants and cafes have closed in the last 12 months around this town?).
    doing so without hierarchical structures.
    doing so while giving workers dignity and a say in the direction of the business.

    thank goodness and bravo indeed.

    PS: you use the word ‘exploiting’ for its negative connotations. that seems shallow and weak. you are saying that it supports what you support, that it works within a capitalist system. so say that rather than trying to swing the argument with use of negative, baseless slurs.

  7. 1. Capitalism is not crumbling. It does not exist. America has never had a free market. It is government interventionism that is crumbling. ‘Twas ever thus.

    2. The word “exploit” is not a negative term. Come out of the Marxist closet.

    3. You seem a bit upset today.

  8. Thad

    Tim: It is true that Firestorm doesn’t just give stuff away, and it is true that we keep locks on the doors to keep other people out of our place when we aren’t open. So, in that sense, color us a bunch of capitalists if you want. However, we see a difference between “property” and “possession.” We aren’t profiting by simply owning something. We all work what we have claimed as our possession. It is also true that government interventionism is crumbling, but the next phase of human socio-economic progression will be decentralized, self-managed and deliberative. The best local systems that evolve will also probably be planned by workers councils and consumer councils, not anarcho-capitalism. I’ve already lived through too many recessions to be a fan of the free market. I’m ready to start planning the economy instead of leaving the economy up to chaos and whims of the free market.

  9. “I’ve already lived through too many recessions to be a fan of the free market.”

    Recessions are not caused by the free market (we’ve never had one). They are caused by government interference in the free market.

    If that’s what you’ve had enough of, I’m with you.

    “the next phase of human socio-economic progression will be decentralized, self-managed and deliberative.”

    I certainly hope so. That is the definition of unregulated free market laissez-faire capitalism.

  10. Thad

    No, we do not have a perfectly free market, but the economy isn’t planned, either. I would say that we have a free-ish market: I was free enough to invest in the real-estate market if wished, for example. Then, I would have contributed to the housing bubble. I would have read the books and watched the television shows that explain how it is a great investment, and I would have believed that it was the best place for me to put my money. I would have likewise contributed to that bubble bursting. And that is exactly what happened. It may be true that the government influenced some banks to loan money to people who could not pay their mortgages, which means that the economy is not entirely free, but the economy is free enough to ensure that people like me can have absolutely no say in what happens in the economy that sooner or later ends up screwing me even if I am as educated as I can be and work as hard as I can. The problem with our economy isn’t that we aren’t free enough. The problem with our economy is that people are free to make stupid investment decisions with their money because they are led to believe that by owning something as their property, and by profiting from that property ownership, they can kick back and chillax instead of working. Fundamentally, the problem is that there are too many people who believe it is perfectly economically sustainable to loaf while others work, and they should not be free to act on that belief.

  11. henry pickens

    Its funny, watching Tim and Thad’s back-and-forth, how the ultra-left anarchists and the ultra-right liberatarians circle around and meet each other.

  12. who

    At the risk of killing this thread also, I got to ask, what’s wrong with loafing? If one wants to loaf and pay somebody else to work then they are creating a job. The real question is does that worker have a living wage and is treated decently. Is loafing, in and of itself, greedy and immoral?

  13. Thad

    To hell with a living wage. To hell with a minimum wage for that matter. Whatever society dictates is a “living wage” is always relative, as is the term “decent,” and it will never remain the same. The living wage and the minimum wage are merely band-aids. Any time an entrepreneur ends up having to increase his or her employees’ pays, the cost of production increases. The employer then increases the price of the product or else he cuts his workforce, which means idle people on the dole and harder-working employees who have to pick up the slack by those workers who got cut. Since the wage earners are also consumers, all that happens is that the cost of living goes up across the board for everyone. Then, the government steps in again and raises everyone’s wages again to keep its citizens a bunch of docile slaves for a bit longer. It’s a stupid and endless cycle that does nothing to empower the workers. Additionally, there’s nothing wrong with loafing if you don’t expect to benefit from people who work, but where exactly do you think you will get the money to pay someone else to do your work for you? If a person is born with a silver spoon, then that person did not work for his or her money, so yes, it is immoral to loaf if you benefit from someone else’s labor. If the ant does all the work, then the grasshopper should starve in the cold.

  14. “what’s wrong with loafing? If one wants to loaf and pay somebody else to work”

    There is nothing wrong with it at all.

    First, it is not loafing, it is investing capital in production.

    Second, it violates no one’s rights.

    Third, investment is a source of product development, efficiencies, innovation and job creation. We all benefit from that; especially the poor.

  15. who

    Doesn’t firestorm cafe have investors, or had? When it first opened I was in there getting coffee and a woman behind the counter told me as much. Not trying to be provocative here, non-profit is good, but it couldn’t exist in a vaccum free of “bourgeois” influence.

  16. Matt Howard

    Sorry to interupt the flow of the conversation here for a minute.
    But when I heard of firestorm, I didnt give them very good odds. Plenty of examples of co-op’s going under, or failing to ever function properly.

    Good for them for beating the odds. Keep it up!

  17. “Complete and utter nonsense.”

    Is this what now passes for compelling, substantive retort?

    Yes, thanks Thad, we all believe you now because of your unsubstantiated but heartfelt emotional outbursts.

  18. John

    I’m glad that Firestorm is making it. Small businesses like theirs are important to every community.

    Those that are calling investors ‘loafers’ have never tried to grow a business or probably ever run one when their money was at stake. There’s too many people on this earth for there to not be big businesses that need capital to run and medium sized and small businesses that need it to grow.

  19. John Smolkin

    Is this the place with the back entrance from Patton Ave close to the Greek restaurant? If so, it is a black, communist, angry, anti-American place that does not belong in Asheville. If this place is an example of “communism-socialism” and the mean-spirited attitudes evident there, then they do not belong in our town. GO BACK UP NORTH you freaks! If you do not like capitalism, MOVE to Cuba!

  20. Jill

    So Black people are automaticly anti-american communists? OMG that is the most racist thing I have ever heard, ever. You are the angry one John, and you are why more of us need to move to this town. If you dont like it here you can leave. Maybe someone will invent a time machine and you could go back to nazi germany or aparthied south africa. You dont belong in the real asheville or the real america.

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