Portrait of a local bookstore: Firestorm
by Rob Neufeld
Seven months ago, Firestorm Books and Coffee moved from downtown Asheville to 610 Haywood Road in West Asheville, inaugurating a new era in the evolving cooperative’s history.
Now, it is a general bookstore—West Asheville’s only—as well as a one-of-a-kind, go-to place for exploring millennial views of alternative history.
By “alternative history,” I don’t mean science fiction about what our future would look like if some key event in the past had gone differently—though Firestorm is rich in such titles. I mean what our present time looks like as a new generation of idealists and activists turn away from what they see as failed policies.
I love independent bookstores. Each store’s entire inventory, and not just its staff picks, reflects independent choices; and the shop expresses a personality that makes it a destination location.
Let’s go on a tour of Firestorm.
“Staff Picks” is on the right as you come in the door. I see that Joey has featured Jamaica Kincaid’s travel essay, “A Small Place,” about Antigua, and I’m glad for that. I want to read it now.
And Mary Beth, who oversees the café, has on her shelf, “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.” She got a degree in Environmental Studies at UNC Asheville; and carries a beat-up bird book (a Peterson guide) in her back pocket. “I love guide books that encourage people to interact with the natural world,” she says.
The café is vegan; I had a latte with almond milk.
The thing that really grabbed my attention on the Staff Picks shelves was the collection of books on anarchism—a term that demands a better understanding than what the media generally allows us, if understanding what’s going on today matters to us.
“There isn’t one anarchism,” store co-founder Libertie Valance says. Anarchism “is an umbrella term for a family of philosophies that take as their root...the desirability of a society free of coercion.”
Not granddad’s rad
I am ready to be educated because I still hear the echoes of fear coming from the anarchist scare of the 1910s, when one branch of anti-capitalist, anti-government dissidents had set off bombs to make their points.
That was also the time of horrific workplace abuses, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, so our view may be skewed by the news-making violence of the era.
By World War II, Andrew Cornell writes in his brand new book, “Unruly Equality,” “a new generation of anarchists looked to radical pacifism,” and developed a philosophy “that advocated (that) individuals focus on living their own lives in a fashion that resembled their ideals as closely as possible.”
Today, Cindy Milstein writes in her pocket-sized primer, “Anarchism and Its Aspirations,” “the world is increasingly messy.” That’s a gentle way of putting it. “Rather than retreating,” she says, “it’s imperative that we advance toward an egalitarian community of communities.”
So, what we have in today’s anarchist movement is something that’s remarkably utopian—no hierarchies!—and also willing to be pragmatic, acknowledging that achieving a world society that operates as a federation of small, democratic, trusting councils is going to take time and trials.
Demonstrating this self-awareness, there’s a bookstore favorite, “Come Hell or High Water: A Handbook of Collective Process Gone Awry” by Delfina Vannucci and Richard Singer. It includes stick-figure cartoons, such as the one in which a youth points at a devil figure and says, “Look out! It’s the process tyrant!” And the tyrant roars, “Obey every radical norm!”
Firestorm follows its principles in its business practices: decision by consensus; shared profits; politically-themed events, but no electoral ones; and ecological policies. It has also adapted to situations by, for instance, creating a division of labor when it decided to manage its café separately from its bookstore.
More of the tour
The minds behind the philosophical practice section of Firestorm, now also showcasing fiction, have provided an exciting selection.
On the “New Arrivals” table and among the 3,000 fiction and non-fiction titles shelved along four long aisles behind it, some special books emerge from my buyer’s blind spot.
Among prominent novels such as Salman Rushdie’s latest, “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” (he’s at UNC Asheville, Feb. 18), and classics, such as a strong collection of English Romantic poets, there are the following works that get a boost from the new Zeitgeist.
“The Automobile Club of Egypt” by Alaa Al Aswany reveals a family caught up in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, giving us a workers’ perspective with many suspenseful cliff-hangers.
“Welcome to Night Vale” turns a popular podcast into a novel that combines the spirit and style of two previous eras’ cult favorites, “The Twilight Zone” TV show and Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
“The Gap of Time” by Jeanette Winterson modernizes Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” by portraying the banishment of a baby daughter by a London hedge fund manager; and by enlarging upon the personal and redemptive elements.
Along the right-hand wall, a how-to section includes valuable guides to home-building, forest-harvesting, food preparation, and the like, thanks to a crew of consultants drawn from local patrons.
On the left, on the way to the café, the zine collection thrives with publications so homemade, I got stabbed by a staple binding “It’s Down to This,” reflections and critiques about community and sexual violence. The great discovery was the Doris series, in which the author keeps a narrative journal that exhibits a wonderfully wry, innocent, contemporary, non-mainstream voice.
In back is a decent children’s section, which includes, “3 Sleeps,” gorgeously illustrated by West Asheville resident, Shannon Capezzali.
I should also note that, as I was sampling Firestorm’s offerings, and commenting on various things, staff members sometimes came over to recommend titles in a non-intrusive, informed way. This wasn’t the disinterested hipster mode you sometimes experience in cool commissaries. These people mean business in the best customer-service sense.
History professor David Gilbert conducts a discussion of his book, “The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace,” today, 5 to 7 p.m., at Firestorm Cafe & Books, 610 Haywood Rd., West Asheville (255-8115).
Matissa Kent-White, author, and Shannon Capezzali, illustrator, present their new children’s book, “3 Sleeps,” and give a bilingual reading, 11 a.m., Feb. 27.