The AVL Innovators: Lightning Bolt Ink

The AVL Innovators: Lightning Bolt Ink

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Graphic Designer Estbean Gonzalez and Owner SB in the doorway of Lightning Bolt Ink. Photo: Erin Fowler

Graphic Designer Esteban Gonzalez and Owner SB in the doorway of Lightning Bolt Ink. Photo: Erin Fowler

If you've left the house at all over the past few months, you've probably seen Lightning Bolt Ink's anti-HB2 shirts, and you might have discovered that they were printed and distributed--for free--out of a storefront on Lexington Ave. Lightning Bolt Ink has been going strong in Asheville for a couple of years now, but the shop attained a high profile with the protest shirts and due to the fact that owner SB identifies as trans. They were interviewed by the Washington Post along with other Asheville business leaders, like Malaprop's founder Emoke B'racz, for a piece that ran in the paper back in June. 

When I first heard of Lightning Bolt, it wasn't because of the protest shirts--which I have seen and love. It was because of another shirt that a customer had on when he walked in front of the register I was working one day. It was an outline of North Carolina with a lightning bolt right at Asheville. 

"Where'd you get that shirt?" I asked. "It's great."

"Lightning Bolt Ink," he replied.

This is how much of Lightning Bolt's business is done. Their reputation precedes them because of their smart, clean designs and their attitudes towards running a business. Owner SB notes that being a certified living wage business was a requirement before they opened. Their mission statement, printed on a card at their shop on North Lexington Ave., best sums up their vision:

Lightning Bolt Ink provides customers with exceptional screen printing and embroidery services working in an environment of mutual respect, approachability, and openness. We are customer-focused and professional while taking pleasure in the perfection of our craft. 

These values infuse every step of the process at their shop, from welcoming customers to their design and screen printing practices. SB works closely with their team to ensure that high-quality products are put out according to these standards, and they have clients all over town, from larger businesses to individuals and artists. Their commitment to social activism and social justice is also key--hence the anti-HB2 shirts. SB emphasizes the part of the statement that speaks to working in an environment of mutual respect and openness. "That's really the key for us," they say. "We're living wage certified, a really small staff, we're super proud of that. We were certified from day one. I only wanted to be in business if we could be a living wage business, so that's really exciting."

Opening Lightning Bolt was made possible with the help of a loan from Mountain BizWorks. "There was a screen printing shop in the same space for about 14 years," says SB, "and at end of 2014 they closed. Mountain BizWorks financed me to purchase the equipment from the former business, and I started a new, unaffiliated business in the same space."Lightning Bolt swag. Photo: Erin Fowler

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SB's decision to open a screen printing business came at a time when they were ready for a change. "I had been a cashier at a grocery store for five years prior, and before that I was a mechanic for seven years," they say.

"I basically was in a position where I was trying to figure out what was next, and this opportunity came with the other business closing down, and I was interested. And it was pretty fascinating, because when I started to do my due diligence, like the walkthroughs of the shop to see what was happening here, I realized that it runs structurally almost identically to an oil change shop, which is what I did. I came in at an entry-level position in a garage and did everything.

"The thing that's really cool about it is that you have an onsite technical component, you've got inside and outside sales, customer service, and a retail space that all have to work in a small area efficiently and all have to happen at the same time. It's an almost identical structure. So it was really cool that those seven years as a mechanic applied here even though it's a totally different feel."

Screen printing was new for SB. "My only in to it was as a customer through my bands," they say (currently they play with the bands Impossible Vacation and Desperate Pilot). "It's definitely still evolving; that's one of the things that's so exciting about this shop, because there's something new every day. But it was really cool that Mountain BizWorks (who I think is the greatest, I love what they do) financed me to purchase the equipment and start this new business. We just went for it and started building clients."

Building clients is a process that SB sees as in alignment with their passion for social justice. "We print at discounted rates for social justice groups in town who are working towards creating a sustainable, safe community. So we're very proud to be the printer for Our VOICE, Tranzmission, QORDS, Girls Rock Asheville, The Campaign for Southern Equality, and others. For me the two required aspects of being a small business owner were that we could be living wage certified from day one and that we could offer discounts on runs for social justice groups, and we're able to do both of those things. And we do everything here. We do it by hand, in house."

SB links this kind of attention to detail and customer service with their identity as a Southerner. They were born in Asheville and moved to Alabama in childhood. After college at the University of South Carolina and the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, they moved to Portland, eventually returning to Asheville to play music in the band Hope and Anchor.

"I feel a deep Southern connection," says SB.
 
I'm trans, and so it's really exciting for me as someone queer and trans-identified to be in a town where I'm still in the South but feel safe. I really appreciate knowing where I stand with people at all times. I love the clarity and openness in dealing with folks in the South, and I also love the weather. I absolutely love that we get four seasons, that there's a swimming season and a little bit of snow. And I like the pace.
 
Lightning Bolt's graphic designer, Esteban Gonzalez, notes that, "SB embodies Southern hospitality. Everything that they think about every day, from asking me how I am in the morning, to the mission statement, to the clients is always super cordial and open. They love to give tours of the shop, so whenever we have a new client they get to go back there and see everything. I think that's a key component of being a Southern person, being open and bringing people into your home and making them feel like they're a part of your life."
 
The anti-HB2 shirts are one example of this hospitality, openness, and community connection. "We printed and gave away over 1000 shirts for free," says Gonzalez, "and we didn't make any money and won't ever, though people still request to buy them. We're not printing them anymore, but it's so good to know these people are interested in our business and what we do because of something we feel very strongly about. That creates a community in itself that we're able to be a part of, and so that's where small business connections and personal relations come into play."
 
"It was a beautiful outcome of that saga," says SB. "We're so stoked about what we do." Gonzalez, Zach Albritton, and SB of Lightning Bolt Ink. Photo: Erin Fowler
 
Lightning Bolt stresses that no order is too small, and they can create art in-house if needed. "Esteban is our on-site graphic designer," says SB, "and we can also do corporate logos that require pantone matches and anything in between. We love working with our small business and artist and musician clients. All of our interest in the screenprinting world comes through art and music. We want our customers to be part of the process."
 
Lightning Bolt Ink is located at 100 N. Lexington Ave in downtown Asheville. The shop is open from 11:30-5 Monday through Friday. For more information, visit their website or call 828- 281-1274.