By Robert Turner
There is a bookstore in Paris called Shakespeare and Company where great writers and thinkers like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald hung out in the 1920s. In a small room upstairs, they discussed the radical thoughts and ideas of their day. Firestorm Books & Coffee in West Asheville is like that to me.[Below is an excerpt from my new book, Lewis Mumford and the Food Fighters: A Food Revolution in America, coming May 15.]
I first heard about Firestorm Books, my main recruitment center for radical types, from a farmer girl named Anna who helped out on our farm and never wore shoes. She told me that she was in the bookstore and was surprised to stumble upon a copy of my recently published book Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. That surprised me too, partly because someone actually carried the book, but mostly because I had never heard of that bookstore.
Later that day I googled the name Firestorm Books, and before I even clicked on the first link, I could read the first few lines on the website. It read “We are a collectively owned radical bookstore and community event space in Asheville, North Carolina.” They used the word radical on the website, and I scooched my chair a little closer to the computer screen. My google search then brought up a Wikipedia page that described the business this way: “Firestorm Books & Coffee is a worker-owned and self-managed anti-capitalist business located in the West Asheville section of Asheville, North Carolina, USA.” Perfect. The sign out front could have said “Recruitment Center” as far as I was concerned.
The next day I walked into what was, surprisingly, a quaint little shop, brightly lit with a coffee bar on one side, and old, wood bookshelves scattered throughout, full of colorful books. I expected something a little darker and more mysterious. A young girl named Audrey was at the front counter, and I asked her if she could help me find my book. She knew right where it was, God bless her, on a side wall close to the counter. She had three copies of the book on the shelf, and I told her that I was the author and I asked her if she’d like me to sign them. I don’t know if that helps sell books or not, but it makes me feel important, so I asked.
“Yes, that would be great. We love having author signed copies,” said this little flowerchild working in this anti-capitalist bookstore.
As I signed the copies, and she placed stickers on the cover, I asked her about the business.
“Your website says this is an anti-capitalist, collectively owned, radical bookstore. What does that mean?”
“We don’t make profit, or any profit that we make goes back into the community through the support we give to others,” she answered.
“As for radical, go look at some of the titles.” She smiled.
“But it takes capital to buy and stock all of these books. And what about paying the workers?”
“There are three owner-workers here, and I’m not one of them yet, but I’m working toward becoming one also. We don’t make much money working here. The owners agreed to work for minimum wage years ago, but just recently bumped it up to $10 an hour so it could be closer to a living wage, which really, it isn’t. But they’re happy to put any profits over that back into the community in any way that they can, after paying rent and for book inventory, of course.”
Just then a young man with long, blond dreadlocks and likely unemployed, who was sitting at a store computer accessing free internet, jumped into the conversation, and said, “Dude, this store is awesome.”
That was my guy, I thought. I need that guy. That’s the kind of guy who could get arrested, and I could bail him out, and he wouldn’t lose a job or anything over it. Besides, he’d get three squares a day while he’s incarcerated.
I decided then that I would need to stake out this place to find recruits. But for now, I would just walk the aisles and look for books related to starting a radical movement, and there were plenty. Entire shelving units full of books with titles like How to Make Trouble and Influence People….
I purchased three books to get myself started down this path toward revolution. The titles were How We Win—A Guide to Nonviolent Direct-Action Campaigning; This Is an Uprising; and Full Spectrum Resistance. There was no turning back now—I spent money. I needed to learn about some of the pranks, protests, and political mischief-making that worked for other nefarious, immoral, despicable, and reprehensible groups like mine.
On the way back from Firestorm Books, I stopped by my neighbor’s home just down Avery Creek Road. I found the sage of Appalachia, Lewis Mumford, spreading compost in his garden. Mumford was a big reader and collector of books, and I thought he might like to take a look at the unusual titles I had just purchased.
“You spend more time prepping your garden beds than anyone I know,” I said as I approached the large vegetable garden in his front yard. “Just plant the damn seeds, Mumford!”
He looked up and smiled, and said, “Healthy soil makes healthy plants, which feeds all the animals, including me. I’m an animal.”
He stopped working and rested his arms on top of the shovel, and said, “Ya’ know, Robert, I was just thinking. I was reading a story in Progressive Farmer this morning, and what many commercial farmers are doing to our soil borders on unethical and immoral behavior—they’re destroying the soil that everything aboveground depends on to gain short-term profits. And they’re doing it on such a massive scale. It’s not prudent behavior. Soil health is so important to life on this planet.”
He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his brow, and then continued,
“There are evolutionary biological principles that govern the life of entire systems on earth, starting with the smallest microbes in the soil, and we’re either a part of that or not.”
Mumford was a self-taught scientist of the first order. He read and researched everything related to the natural sciences and was an expert on soil health, among other things.
“Since we began agriculture about 10,000 years ago,” he said, “and really since the 1950s, we’ve become completely disconnected from the earth. We’ve transcended it, technologically. We really don’t belong here anymore.”
With those words he glanced over at me and feigned a smile and then continued raking the compost into his garden. “What’d you bring me?” he said.
We really don’t belong here anymore. See, that’s the kind of talk that starts a revolution.
A virtual book launch and author talk for Lewis Mumford and the Food Fighters will be held by Firestorm Books & Coffee at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 19. Register and participate online at Firestorm.coop.