While the first
amendment gives us a lot of rights on the free speech front, especially in the
past few years where protests have become commonplace again, very rarely do you
hear a lot of people talk directly about it and its impact. But one store not only
encourages it, they'll hook you up with everything you'll need to express it!
--- The Free Speech Zone got its start a few years back up the then vibrant area of Sugar House, well before the place became a construction wasteland. Giving locals a place and items to express themselves and opinions in every way from posters to bumper stickers and buttons. When the destruction finally happened, the store dug up roots and firmly planted itself downtown up on 8th East, slowly getting the shop back up and running to continue expressing your rights and theirs. I got a chance to chat with owner Raphael Cordray about the shop's history, some of the objects sold, local politics and a few other topics. All while taking pictures of the new place before its open for business.
Gavin: Hey Raphael, first off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Raphael: I was born and raised in
Gavin: Tell us about the Free Speech Zone.
Raphael: FSZ is a radical info shop but it is also a gift shop we try to sell things that are hard to come by in
Gavin: For those who don't know the history, tell us a little on where the name origin and why you chose to use it as a store name.
Raphael: During the Olympics in
Gavin: Where did the idea come from to start up this kind of shop?
Raphael: The shop was kind of an accident, I had no idea what I was doing or what would evolve when I started. I originally started by sharing a shop with someone else that had a different name. I was selling things that I made I tried some underwear that a friend had stenciled a picture of George Bush over the word fascist I noticed an interest right away. I started adding stickers and pins with messages that I liked meanwhile my partner got uncomfortable about political speech and we had to quit sharing a space. Luckily this experience showed me I could do it myself I immediately thought of Free Speech Zone as a name because I felt my partner was stifling my expression as I went along I realized what a wide range of areas free speech and free expression cover the inventory easily evolved from there. It still evolves all the time, we created a “free speech zone” for graffiti artists on the walls that surround our property it looks awesome.
Gavin: Why did you originally choose Sugar House for the first location?
Raphael: This was all part of the spontaneous creation of the shop I had no idea what I was getting into at the time. Sugar House had a great asset as a pedestrian friendly neighborhood plus a long history of being that way for many years.
Gavin: Was it difficult or relatively easy getting setup?
Raphael: It was hard to wear all the hats of a small business. I have had no formal training for any of it. The creative part decorating, choosing products, and making clothing and jewelry to sell was and is fun that is my passion as well as political activism so that is what keeps me interested.
Raphael: I was expecting some reaction but growing up here and feeling like an oddball already I was sort of looking forward to making conservatives squirm. I immediately noticed a positive response from many people who were thrilled to have access to the things we sell because most things at Free Speech Zone are otherwise not available in
Gavin: When you finally opened up, what was that first month like?
Raphael: It was fun. I was so unaware of what I was doing. Sugar House already had some unique businesses so we fit right in.
Gavin: One of the big things that's commented on is that you know your city history, specifically a lot of the “darker chapters” that tend to get ignored. How did you take up finding out all the info, and what have you taken away from it all personally?
Raphael: Before I started Free Speech Zone I was already aware of the working class struggle and the effects of capitalism and war on average citizens. The ideal of profits over people has been around for hundreds of years. My father and his friends had a protest against the Vietnam War in 1970 at
Gavin: What inspired the Joe Hill posters, and how have people taken to them over the years?
Raphael: Joe Hill was a member of the IWW who was executed by a firing squad at the
Gavin: A big thing at your store is that the products are sweatshop free. Was that an idea from the start or was it something you decided to do along the way? And how has it affected you as a business?
Raphael: We avoid selling things that are made by slaves and are mostly garbage because they end up in the landfill so quickly. I was already avoiding these things as a consumer so it was important from the start. It has been a great way to educate the public about the effects of Americans rampant consumerism and the negative consequences this has around the world. More and more American made and abuse free has become novel this is great for business and it helps me sleep.
Gavin: Are there any Utah-made products that people can check out?
Raphael: I sell a lot of things I make myself like wallets, tote bags, washable menstrual pads, jewelry and clothes. Most of these things are made with recycled and discarded fabric. I carry other locally made things like stickers and t-shirts.
Gavin: Have you ever gotten flack from anything you've sold, or are people generally respectful of the free speech rights you express?
Raphael: Some people are pretty offended by some things we sell. For the most part they don’t come in; when they do I tell them that if they don’t like it they are always free to leave. Middle aged white males seem to be the ones who want to argue. I don’t bother. In this struggle white male patriarchs have the most to loose this makes them defensive.
Gavin: What was it like first learning you'd have to leave of Sugar House?
Raphael: I was very upset we were really starting to hit our stride. It felt like a death of something I had created and the death of a unique neighborhood. I knew it would end up a big hole in the ground for years. Now it is basically another cookie cutter area with chain stores and no local flavor.
Gavin: How did you decide to move to downtown instead of other areas in the city?
Raphael: I looked for quite awhile for somewhere to go. I could not see Free Speech Zone being appealing in a strip mall. Mostly I wanted a place where I would not be evicted by a greedy property owner so I wanted to buy a place. It was a challenge to find something I could afford so when I found the place at 411 So. 800 E. I was thrilled. It has been way more complicated to comply with the city and open up then I ever expected. Our new location is great you can see the Trax station from the shop and we are between the U and downtown.
Gavin: As a business owner, how is it operating in downtown right now, and how are things for you in this current economy?
Raphael: We have been unable to fully open before adding a wheelchair ramp, parking and other things to bring the space up to code. The shop is in a 1905 house. It is in a commercial zone however the house has been residential. Converting from residential to commercial has been a huge project. All through out this process we have maintained interest and anticipation. We have something for everyone and a lot of it is under $5.00 with the scarcity of liberal information and expression in
Gavin: Aside from what we've talked about, what other fun stuff can people expect to find at the store?
Raphael: We have so many stickers and pins with different messages and points of view that encourage tolerance and inclusion of all humans and their beliefs. We have stickers for agnostics, alternative energy, anti-war, anarchists, atheists, bike riders, Christians, civil rights, environmentalists, family planning, feminism, GLBT rights, gender equality, global warming awareness, human rights, health care access, indigenous rights, immigrant rights, justice, labor/workers rights, love, non-violence, nuclear abolishment, pro choice, peace, resistance, revolution, racial equality, religious freedom, sexual freedom, socialism, unions, veterans, vegetarians, vegans and more. Bring in a new friend or a first date you will quickly find out where they stand on so many issues.
Gavin: I know this is a open-ended question, but I'm really curious. Are there any thoughts you'd like to express on current politics in
Raphael: Thank goodness we have some decent leadership in
Gavin: What can we expect from you guys over the rest of the year?
Raphael: We will be getting out there more and be stepping up our expression as an owner and not a renter I have so much more freedom to speak out. We will have music performances, poetry, drumming and art inside and outside.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Raphael: Just that we exist!