“There’s more to this place than meets the eye,” promises Stephanie Coleman, owner of Issues International News Stand (32 Biltmore Ave.). Walk in the door and you’ll find yourself surrounded by books, CDs, artwork and gutsy stickers. It’s cozy, comfortable and inviting. “People come in here and think it’s pretty, which is great,” concedes Coleman, adding, “But look what I’ve got in here — this is some real stuff!“
What she means is that there’s a lot more to her hand-picked inventory than mere kitsch or souvenirs. “We’ve got to do what we do in a way that helps people open their minds and see where they’re at,” Coleman declares. Her product line is designed to do just that. Locally made soaps by Kula Girl are stacked near an essential-oils display; a line of Miss Martha’s “All God’s Children” figurines waits to catch the eye of gift-hunters.
The same holds true for the books: Pithy novels by the likes of Zora Neale Hurston mingle with the works of local poets such as Damion Bailey; books of social commentary, Wicca, black history and women’s issues also crowd the shelves. The arts selection is growing, and Coleman is quick to point out that she’s in the perfect neighborhood to tap that audience.
“I’m so glad to see books by and about black people are so popular,” she says, “but Issues can work around any title.” With years of experience as bookseller, Coleman can say to a person, “Tell me about yourself” and proceed to put the right book in that customer’s hands.
“People need information,” she insists, producing a copy of Blue magazine, a global/activist/hip-hop publication that comes with a free CD. More work of art than mass medium, the magazine serves up music, spoken-word, commentary, rap and Latin grooves. Issues is the only place to buy these collector’s items, because when Blue ceased publication, Coleman bought up the remaining stock. “I’ve sold them to schools like UNCA,” she reveals. “People come from out of town and say, ‘My friend told me I can get Blue here,’ and I love that.”
Issues is also a gallery showcasing the work of emerging local artists. “I’ve run into people who can’t imagine that their art would sell or that anyone would be interested in it,” she observes, adding, “Artists need help learning to sell and price their work.” The art has sold well, and Issues has taken on the role of working with up-and-coming talent, helping them help themselves grow without being taken advantage of. She and business partner Derrick Finley, notes Coleman, “really stress to people to get their finances in order and under control, and to take advantage of services in and beyond Asheville.”
Her own business education (from the school of hard knocks) taught Coleman valuable lessons that she generously shares. She came to Asheville by way of Charlotte from her home in Lawrence, Kan.; Coleman’s inner voice was urging her to make a change in her life. And though she was running her own business in Kansas (a black-history tour), she decided to follow her heart. So in ’96 she packed a U-Haul van and headed east. A friend in Charlotte put the Asheville bug in Coleman’s ear, and though she resisted, her heart eventually led her to the mountains, where she took a job with the Mountain Microenterprise Fund. “Helping people start up their own businesses was right up my alley,” she recalls. “I’d never heard of microlending, but it was one of the most rewarding organizations I’ve ever been affiliated with.”
Four years later, Coleman followed her intuition once again, launching Issues. “I’d always wanted my own shop,” she explains. “I’m responsible for this, but I see myself more as a steward, helping out the community with areas in need of work (such as job counseling and support for emerging artists).” Coleman also sees her shop as an information resource for people new to the community. “Many visitors and people considering the move to Asheville are looking for me,” she reveals.
Most of her customers, notes Coleman, are white, and the majority of her African-American customers are from out of town. “If people aren’t coming in, it may not be because they don’t want to,” she muses. “Maybe it’s because they don’t know me, or I don’t have what they want, or they don’t want to invest emotionally. Sure, it’s great to see a black business come up, but it’s sad to see it fall back down. People test you out, and once they see your business is stable, they’ll support it. I’ve done that.”
For the time being, she continues to look ahead. “I have to have patience,” Coleman reminds herself, focusing on the work at hand. Her Web sites (blackasheville.com and the still-in-development Issues site) offer forums for discussion as well as a wealth of resources. “Blackasheville.com is a place for the concerns of the black community, but it benefits anyone who comes across it,” she explains. “I’m looking forward to getting the Issues site up and providing more information. We’ll link other businesses to the site.”
Issues itself has become a kind of networking center. “If you’ve got something you’re interested in and you’re ready to take it to the next level, you go see Stephanie at Issues,” Coleman says with a smile. She’s still glowing from a recent success: a poetry reading held in the shop. “There were five poets, all black — and that doesn’t happen on a daily basis. It was right here on Biltmore Avenue for everyone to see.” The readers included new artist Duane Barton, singer/poet Kizzy Todd (whom Coleman first met at the laundromat) and Kevin Evans (whose debut CD is soon to be released).
“I’m creating an avenue for individuals to express whatever they want to express,” Coleman explains, adding, “This is a safe place to have that experience. This storefront is a vehicle for people who need a place where they can just stop in and connect.”
As much as Issues is a point of connection, grounding and education for its visitors, it’s also a teacher for Coleman. “If I didn’t have a business background, I would’ve run from this place years ago,” she admits. “I came into doing Issues for a variety of reasons. As I work with it, bringing it to where I know it can be, it’s bringing me to where I need to be. I want an empire, but I know an empire doesn’t happen overnight. Issues is my baby, and I’m making baby steps. I’ve learned not to freak out when things don’t go smoothly.”
Is this the norm in the business world? Hardly. Is Coleman for real? Definitely. “In the beginning, running Issues was about my ego making this happen,” she confesses. “Instead, the store taught me about the art of letting go, the art of patience, and the art of taking risks. It’s really shaped me in so many ways.”
Despite the challenges of running an independent business, Coleman remains thankful for the experience. “If Issues closed its doors today, I’d still feel good about what I’d done,” she insists. “I imagine a lot of business owners can say that. If everything worked well for them when they started out, I’d feel sorry for them because they’d have no lessons, no tools for the future. Seeing all the mistakes I’ve made, understanding why they happened and how to rectify them, as well as embracing what’s working — it’s a balancing act.”
“We care about people,” Coleman says about herself and her partner. “We’re learning how important it is to set examples. The lessons I’ve learned made it possible for me to prepare others for what can happen up the road.” Smiling, she adds, “It’s been a tough two years, and it’s made me stronger.”