Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Radical Bookstore in Southern Appalachia: Firestorm Books & Cafe

Supporting Grassroots Movements Since 2008

Firestorm Books & Cafe is a collectively-owned radical bookstore and community event space in Asheville, North Carolina. Since 2008, Firestorm has supported grassroots movements in southern Appalachia while developing a workplace on the basis of cooperation, empowerment and equity.

What’s your favorite section of the store?

Jazmin: I like our Family & Relationships section and I really enjoy our Worker Picks shelves. I think it says a lot about the people who work here and our personalities.

Libertie: My favorite is our kids’ section because it’s our newest and I’m really fond of the way we display our picture books and how immersive it is. When people walk into the space they have a really visible reaction to it. And also I’m just into adults reading middle grade.
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Mic: It’s really hard to pick one section but I think I’m going to go with Mind & Body. It’s an exciting alternative to the popularity of Self Help, so I like going over there and getting an eclectic mix of topics that in our culture are often separated. You get Philosophy or Psychology over in one section and Health in another section. I like that we make the connection between the two.

Beck: For me it’s a toss-up between our kid’s section and our Sci-Fi & Fantasy section, where so much of that sweet, sweet dystopia lives. And that’s pretty much all I want to read right now as I watch the world shatter around us.

Libertie: Wow. No one chose Feminism or Anarchism! There goes our credentials as a radical bookstore.

What would you say is your bookstore’s specialty?

Beck: We bill ourselves as a “social movement bookstore.” That means we lean in way harder than most other bookstores on social movement history and contemporary texts about anarchism, feminism, and socialism.

Libertie: And that’s really echoed in the other sections, too. For instance, rather than only finding queer titles in the LGBTQ section, you’re going to see strong representation in Biography and Fantasy.
I would also have to mention Herbalism. I’ve been to a lot of other rad, collectively-run bookstores and they never have an Herbalism section. It’s one of our strong sections and it’s right next to other uncommon sections like Mycology, Fermentation, and Wildcrafting. And that speaks so much to the character of our community which has a deep interest in traditional health modalities and connection to the earth.

Do you have bookstore pets or animal regulars?

Beck: Santiago! He’s perfect. He’s scared of everything. Santiago spends a lot of time shivering on the couch until his human puts a sufficient number of layers on top of him.

Libertie: Santiago is bilingual!

What’s your favorite book to hand-sell?

Jazmin: I’ve talked so many people into buying bell hooks, including her children’s books. You tell a customer that it’s “all about love” and *bam* FEMINISM! You gotta sneak it in there a little bit.

Libertie: We have so many good books to hand-sell, but for me, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom stands out. Both because it’s an incredible book and because I have, as of yet, basically never encountered anyone who has read it. It’s my go-to magical realist queer biography that’s obscure on account of being published by a small press in Canada.

Beck: I’m obsessed with Severance by Ling Ma, and I want to tell everyone about it. I feel like I should be able to say “anti-capitalist horror-satire” and have people fall over themselves to get their hands on this book, but I’m learning that everyone else’s favorite books don’t necessarily fill them with an overwhelming sense of physical and existential dread. If I see Margaret Atwood or Carmen Maria Machado in your hands though, you’re fair game.

Mic: I like to connect Parable of the Sower with Emergent Strategy. It’s a popular title and people either know Adrienne Maree Brown or they’ve heard of her podcast. For me the book connects so strongly to Octavia Butler’s work. When I see people looking at Parable of the Sower, in particular, I encourage them to read Emergent Strategy because it talks about applying some of what the main character is attempting to utilize in their own life.

If you had infinite space what would you add (other than a bar/restaurant)?

Libertie: We used to have a co-operative member who insisted that we open a bowling alley slash laundromat called “Pins & Spins.” Julie started advocating for this back in 2014 when we were looking for a new location and, although it didn’t pan out, they’ve kept their advocacy up very consistently ever since.

Beck: The bowling alley is lost on me, but I am enchanted by the laundromat—so convenient!

Mic: I love laundromats. There’s just so much space with the floor open and the machines along the wall. People could talk about books while folding their laundry. It would dovetail with the bookstore-as-community-space.

Libertie: Somebody did tell me recently that they had a dream in which Firestorm added a shooting range that also served pies. [laughs] Apparently we had a big sign that said “all people deserve affordable access to firearms and pie.” I don’t think that would go over very well with most of our customers.

What’s your favorite display?

Beck: Definitely my favorite display was the window we did in support of the national prison strike in August. We packed our front window with abolitionist literature and had “Prisons Are for Burning” with a lit match painted on it for like two months. Some folks were very fussy about it, and there was a massive thread on a local politics Facebook page debating the merits of our message.

Libertie: Definitely the most buzz Firestorm has ever received for a display!

Beck: Oh, and our enamel pin selection is displayed on a jean vest, which is very cute. That deserves a mention.

How do you use the bookstore to build community?

Mic: We have a big community room that is available to use free of charge for various events and meetings. Last year we hosted over 200 unique events plus regular meetups and discussion groups. Our ability to maintain the community room is supported through our Community Sustainers Program. In exchange for a monthly contribution, sustainers receive a range of benefits like discounts on purchases, a monthly mailer of our calendar of events, small giveaways, and frontlist titles handpicked by our collective. As we continue to grow the program, we hope to expand opportunities for sustainers to be involved with our space.

Libertie: Firestorm is a little unique in that it was created as a community event space first and a bookstore second. When we opened in 2008, we sustained ourselves as a cafe and then evolved into a book space, but the commitment to providing grassroots community resources never went away. In a sense, the business is just an engine to support social movement work. I don’t know of another bookstore that started that way, although there are others doing similar work. We now understand ourselves as part of the book industry, but that came second. We started as community organizers.

Mic: Another thing I love about our ability to build community is that it extends well beyond Asheville. As a ten-year-old worker-owned cooperative located in Southern Appalachia, we often hear from folks who choose to travel to Asheville specifically to visit Firestorm. Whether they heard from a friend or saw us at a book fair nearby, I love that we serve as a destination point and place of connection for queer youth or social movement organizers who might not have a space like this in their rural communities.

Libertie: I guess this is the time to mention that we’re currently in fight with the city! [Laughs.] It’s been covered elsewhere, but our commitment to community has gotten our store into some trouble. The zoning department claims that we shouldn’t be hosting non-literary events. We feel really fortunate to have the support of other local bookstores and our community, but our hearing is [in March] and we’ve had to divert a lot of resources to defending our co-op and the resources we host.

What’s your favorite thing to sell at the bookstore that’s not a book?

Mic: I like the “Please Kill My Enemies” iron-on patches, primarily because people seem to get so much joy out of them. They see them, they giggle, they show a friend, and then they buy one.

Libertie: Yeah I would actually say that everything from Silver Sprocket, where we get that patch, is my fave. I was thinking about another patch that says “I See Through All Your Bullshit,” which is from the same distributor. Their merch is extremely appealing aesthetically and also pokes at a unique cultural space.

Beck: I wanna give a shout-out to our extensive zine collection.

Libertie: Right! Ten years ago when Firestorm opened, it was common for there to be zine collections in DIY spaces and radical bookstores. Over the last five years, those sections have really shrunk or disappeared from some of my favorite stores like Red Emma’s in Baltimore or Bluestockings in New York. That probably says something about the state of DIY publishing and how much takes place on the internet. And small books are increasingly affordable to produce on demand. So people who might have previously made really slick zines are now accessing more professional productions. But our patrons love zines and the price point is unbeatable at $2 to $5 each.

Beck: We pretty consistently receive little envelopes stuffed with zines from people all over the world who are like, “I made this thing! Let me know if people like them and I’ll send more.” And I love that at least once a week someone walks in with a folder of their zines to sell to us. So the bar to having something you created in a bookstore is low, and I like that.

What’s a children’s book that made you cry or that you think all adults should read?

Libertie: For me, Cory Silverberg’s Sex Is A Funny Word! The first time I read it, I thought, “Oh my god, where was this when I was a kid?” It consistently gets rave reviews from middle grade readers. If there are four children in the kid’s space, there’s never only one looking at Silverberg’s book. It’s either undiscovered or every child is studiously crowded around. I love that it deals with complex topics is a straightforward, non-jargony way while also being fun.

Mic: We have a collection of children’s books written and illustrated by Anastasia Higginbotham. With titles like Tell Me About Sex Grandma and Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, I really appreciate the way Anastasia encourages exploration of the “ordinary, terrible things” people might rather prefer not to discuss. The one that really got me was Death Is Stupid. Having lost a parent this past year, I saw much of my own experience in the emotional journey demonstrated through the eyes of a young child losing their grandma. Our culture can be severely lacking in well practiced and supportive collective grief. Still, when it comes to death, we are all in this together. In the meantime, how we live and how we remember is up to us, and there are lessons in this book (for children and adults alike!) for how we can cope, where we can ask for help, and how we can continue to grow along with a world that is always changing.

What’s a bestseller that could only be big in your town?

Beck: Witches, Midwives, and Nurses by Barbara Ehrenreich!

Libertie: Of which, notably, we have sold almost twice as many copies in 2018 as our second most popular title.
Beck: Which is What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte.

Libertie: Witches, Midwives, and Nurses was originally published as a pamphlet in the 1970s and was recently republished by The Feminist Press at CUNY in book form. It’s about the history of the patriarchal medical system and the eclipse of women’s power in society. A feminist classic that’s still culturally relevant and reads like it could have been written contemporarily. It covers territory similar to Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, but in a shorter, less academic format. Really it reads like a manifesto.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Pete Buttigieg, 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Harvard grad, then Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Afghanistan war veteran, in an interview in New York Magazine about his candidacy for president:

There’s been a decent amount written about the idea that this president doesn’t read, including fiction, that it hems in his way of thinking, his view of the world.

I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s convincing. Because reading is a way of putting yourself in someone else’s experience, especially reading fiction. You could, I guess, watch a movie or a play and get some of that effect, but it doesn’t seem like he does that, either. I haven’t heard of him watching a movie. Maybe he does, all I’ve heard is he watches cable. So, yeah, I mean, you read a novel and you get into somebody else’s world, and it makes you more compassionate and more attentive to why things matter. One respect in which I’m very much my father’s son is how I feel about Joyce. Ulysses is very much about daily life, when you get into this other guy’s life and you learn about the things he cares about, and why he cares about them. And then, very indirectly, very subtly, you learn why politics has impacted his life, too.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

From The Atlantic:

Developed countries like the United States have seen a remarkable transformation in education over the last century: Girls and young women—once subjected to discrimination in, and even exclusion from, schools and colleges—have “conquered” those very institutions, as a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) put it. Today, for example, women comprise a growing majority of students on college campuses in the U.S., up from around 40 percent in the 1970s.
One understated contributor to this development has been that girls routinely outstrip boys at reading. In two of the largest studies ever conducted into the reading habits of children in the United Kingdom, Keith Topping—a professor of educational and social research at Scotland’s University of Dundee—found that boys dedicate less time than girls to processing words, that they’re more prone to skipping passages or entire sections, and that they frequently choose books that are beneath their reading levels.
“Girls tend to do almost everything more thoroughly than boys,” Topping told me over email, while conversely boys are “more careless about some, if not most, school subjects.” And notably, as countless studies have shown, girls are also more likely to read for pleasure.

But it’s not just a phenomenon in the U.K.: These trends in girls’ dominance in reading can be found pretty much anywhere in the developed world. In 2009, a global study of the academic performance of 15-year-olds found that, in all but one of the 65 participating countries, more girls than boys said they read for pleasure. On average across the countries, only about half of boys said they read for enjoyment, compared to roughly three-quarters of girls. (The list generally excludes less-developed countries where girls and women tend to have lower rates of literacy than boys and men.)
But that girls read more than boys the world over doesn’t mean that biology is the driving force. As Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Chicago Medical School, said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June: The brain “is a unisex organ,” meaning gender differences are mostly a result of socialization, not genetics. After all, boys tend to be more vulnerable than girls to peer pressure, and that could discourage them from activities like reading that are perceived to be “uncool.”
David Reilly, a psychologist and Ph.D. candidate at Australia’s Griffith University who co-authored a recent analysis on gender disparities in reading in the U.S., echoed these arguments, pointing to the stereotype that liking and excelling at reading  is a feminine trait. He suggested that psychological factors—like girls’ tendency to develop self-awareness and relationship skills earlier in life than boys—could play a role in the disparity, too, while also explaining why boys often struggle to cultivate a love of reading. “Give boys the right literature, that appeals to their tastes and interests, and you can quickly see changes in reading attitudes,” he says, citing comic books as an example.
Topping suggests that schools ought to make a more concerted effort to equip their libraries with the kinds of books—like nonfiction and comic books—that boys say they’re drawn to. “The ability to read a variety of kinds of text for a variety of purposes is important for life after school,” he says.
Understanding why girls are so much more inclined to read might help eradicate what is proving to be a stubborn gender gap both in the U.S. and around the world: the lagging educational outcomes of boys and men. Reading for pleasure is, as the OECD has concluded, a habit that can prove integral to performing well in the classroom. “Any cognitive skill can be improved with practice,” Reilly says. “If girls are reading more outside of school”—if they’re doing so out of an intrinsic motivation rather than because they have to—“this provides them with thousands of hours of additional reading over the course of their development.”
And those extra hours pay dividends for years to come in the classroom.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019


Toni Morrison on 'Beloved'

An excerpt from the celebrated author's latest book, "The Source of Self-Regard."

I began thinking about Beloved in 1983. As it had been since the beginning of my writing years, I was drawn to it by my complicated relationship with history. A relationship that was wary, alert, but ready to be persuaded away from doubt. It was a caution based on my early years as a student, during which time I was keenly aware of erasures and absences and silences in the written history available to me — silences that I took for censure. History, it seemed, was about them. And if I or someone representative of myself ever were mentioned in fiction, it was usually something I wished I had skipped. Not just in the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain’s unconscionable humiliation of a grown man at the hands of children; there was no respite in those years even in the encyclopedia or in history texts. While I maintain a cool eye while reading historical texts, it is an eye no cooler than the one historians maintain, and ought to maintain when reading fiction. Yet in spite of my wariness, my skepticism, there is a dependence, solid and continuous, that I have on history, partly for the data available to me there, but mostly for precisely those gaps, those erasures, that censure. It is in the interstices of recorded history that I frequently find the "nothing" or the "not enough" or the "indistinct" or "incomplete" or "discredited" or "buried" information important to me. For example, in 1963, my first novel, The Bluest Eye, was a consequence of being overcome by the wholesale dismissal of a certain part of the population (to which I belonged) in history texts and literature. Of all the characters chosen for artistic examination, with empathy or contempt, vulnerable young black girls were profoundly absent. When they did appear, they were jokes or instances of pity — pity without understanding. No one it seemed missed their presence center stage and no one it seemed took them seriously except me. Now, I didn't blame literature for that. Writers write what they like and what interests them. And even African American writers (mostly men, but not all) made clear that, except as background, prepubescent black girls were unable to hold their interest or stimulate their curiosity. Nevertheless, writers' lack of curiosity was not the point. To me the enforced or chosen silence, the way history was written, controlled and shaped the national discourse. 

However much historical analysis has changed (and it has changed enormously) and broadened in the last forty years, the silences regarding certain populations (minorities) when finally articulated are still understood to be supplementary accounts of a marginal experience, a supplemental record, unassociated with the mainstream of history; an expanded footnote, as it were, that is interesting but hardly central to the nation’s past. Racial history, for example, remains very much parallel to main historical texts, but is seldom seen as either its warp or woof, and seldom threaded into the whole cloth. These ancillary and parallel texts are gaining wide readership while remaining the site of considerable controversy. (Debates about reading material swirled in many high schools.) Although the silences provoked virtually all of my work, inhabiting them with one’s own imagination is easy to note, not so easy to do. I have to find the hook, the image, the newspaper article that produces sustained musing, a "what if ?" or "what must it have been like?"
Beloved originated as a general question, and was launched by a newspaper clipping. The general question (remember, this was the early eighties) centered on how — other than equal rights, access, pay, etc. — does the women's movement define the freedom being sought? One principal area of fierce debate was control of one's own body — an argument that is as rife now as it was then. Many women were convinced that such rights extended to choosing to be a mother, suggesting that not being a mother was not a deficit and choosing motherlessness (for however long) could be added to a list of freedoms; that is, one could choose to live a life free of and from child- bearing and no negative or value judgment need apply.
Another aspect of the women's movement involved strong encouragement of women to support other women. Not to have one's relationship to another woman be subordinate to a relationship with a man. That is, the time spent with a female friend was not downtime. It was real time.
The completion of the debate was more complicated than that (there was much class conflict roiling in it) but those were the issues surfacing with gusto. I addressed the second one (women being important friends) in Sula. But the first one — freedom as ownership of the body, childlessness chosen as a mark of freedom, engaged me deeply. And here again the silences of historical accounts and the marginalizing of minority peoples in the debate claimed my attention and proved a rich being to explore. From the point of view of slave women, for example. Suppose having children, being called a mother, was the supreme act of freedom — not its opposite? Suppose instead of being required to have children (because of gender, slave status, and profit) one chose to be responsible for them; to claim them as one’s own; to be, in other words, not a breeder, but a parent. Under U.S. slavery such a claim was not only socially unacceptable, it was illegal, anarchic. It was also an expression of intolerable female independence. It was freedom. And if the claim extended to infanticide (for whatever reason — noble or crazed) it could and did become politically explosive.

These lines of thought came together when I recalled a newspaper article I had read around 1970, a description of an abolitionist cause célèbre focused on a slave woman named Margaret Garner who had indeed made such claims. The details of her life were riveting. But I selected and manipulated its parts to suit my own purposes. Still my reluctance to enter the period of slavery was disabling. The need to reexamine and imagine it was repellent. Plus, I believed nobody else would want to dig deeply into the interior lives of slaves, except to summon their nobility or victimhood, to be outraged or self-righteously gripped by pity. I was interested in neither. The act of writing is a kind of act of faith.
Sometimes what is there — what is already written — is perfect and imitation is absurd and intolerable. But a perfect thing is not every- thing. Another thing, another different thing is required. Sometimes what is already there is simply not enough; other times it is indistinct, incomplete, even in error or buried. Sometimes, of course, there is nothing. And for a novelist that is the real excitement. Not what there is, but what there is not.
A tall door rises up into this nothing; its hardware is heavy, secure. No bell invites your hand. So you stand there, perhaps, or move away and, later, sticking your hand in your pocket, you find a key that you know (or hope) fits the lock. Even before the tumblers fall back you know you will find what you hoped to find: a word or two that turns the "not enough" into more; the line or sentence that inserts itself into the nothing. With the right phrase, this sense becomes murky, becomes lit, differently lit. Through that door is a kind of freedom that can frighten governments, sustain others, and rid whole nations of confusion. More important, however, is that the writer who steps through that door with the language of his or her own intellect and imagination enters uncolonized territory, which she can claim as right- fully her own — for a while at least.
The shared effort to avoid imagining slave life as lived from their own point of view became the subtheme, the structure of the work. Forgetting the past was the engine, and the characters (except for one) are intent on forgetting. The one exception being the one hungry for a past, desperate for being not just remembered, but dealt with, confronted. That character would be the only one in a position to accurately render judgment of her own murder: the dead child. Beloved. Thus, after following a number of trails trying to determine the structure, I decided that the single most uncontroversial thing one can say about the institution of slavery vis-à-vis contemporary time, is that it haunts us all. That in so many ways all our lives are entangled with the past — its manipulations and, fearful of its grasp, ignoring or dismissing or distorting it to suit ourselves, but always unable to erase it. When finally I understood the nature of a haunting — how it is both what we yearn for and what we fear, I was able to see the traces of a ghostly presence, the residue of a repressed past in certain concrete but also allusive detail. Footprints particularly. That disappear and return only to disappear again. The endings of my novels have to be clear in my mind before I begin. So I was able to describe this haunting even before I knew everything that would lead up to it.

Excerpted from: THE SOURCE OF SELF-REGARD: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison. Copyright © 2019 by Toni Morrison
Published by arrangement with Knopfan imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
TONI MORRISON is the author of twelve novels, from The Bluest Eye (1970) to God Help the Child (2015). She has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She lives in New York.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The newest issue. The Atlantic comes out 10 times a year now. It was started as a monthly in Boston in 1857. Among its founders were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Its newest owner is Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs's widow. The magazine has a very active web presence. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

For someone who's become a morning fixture on Chambers Street, I approached my spot self-consciously today. I hadn't been there in two weeks. I felt guilty. That's the longest I'd been missing with my sign in almost seven years. I'd been out in Wyoming to see my daughter and her three daughters and I thought I'd be back in a week. But big snows kept me from getting out of there for four days last week.

People asked about me today. Where had I been? The sign got good looks and head nods and thumbs up from some new passers-by. I wasn't there a minute when a woman marched by the sign and said, Exactly

Seeing my daughter and hanging around her funny, strong-willed kids was great. Being in a beautiful mountain town was great too. I wish I could go to such places without missing a day holding the sign with its message. I still think what the sign says could change the world.