top of page

Igniting Change in Florida: Femme Fire Books Connects Readers to Diverse Literary Treasures

Vanessa Nicolle and her husband Mhardy Moralita at Femme Fire Books on opening day Jul 16th, 2022. Photo: Jyll Aurelio

Nestled in the Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida, is a small but mighty independent bookstore, Femme Fire Books. Owner and operator Vanessa Nicolle, a U.S. Navy Veteran, opened the online bookstore in January 2020 with a carefully cultivated selection of books celebrating diversity and inclusivity in literature.

“I didn’t grow up with books with Philippine representation, and I felt really sad about that. I had to sift through so many books to find any Asian representation, let alone Filipino American representation,” Nicolle said. “With that feeling, I thought, if I feel that way, how many thousands of people feel that way? Filipino American people, queer people, Black people can’t find books they feel represented, despite our country being so diverse.”

On a mission to celebrate diversity and encourage reading for all, Nicolle is determined to stock as many books written by women, people of color, and authors historically marginalized by the publishing industry.

Femme Fire Books began as a feminist bookstore, initially driven by Nicolle’s love for reading, sharing, and discussing chat books. The shop’s name pays homage to the feminine, with “fire” representing energy and feminist rage.

“It’s about not dimming yourself for somebody else and letting that fire burn in all of this femininity,” Nicolle said. “I served in the Navy for almost six years, working in a male-dominated environment. I always felt like I had to conform or act a certain way. Femme Fire Books was my outlet to be and express myself in my own way.”

Opening an independent bookstore during the pandemic had its challenges. While Nicolle’s deployment from July to December 2020 resulted in a six-month hiatus, she was determined to relaunch the store, build a following, and expand the collection inspired by the transformative impact of movements that champion racial justice, gender equality, and worker’s rights.

“Businesses don’t happen overnight. It was a long journey to get to where the brand is now. In regards to the Black Lives Matter movement as well as Stop AAPI Hate, it stressed the importance of representation in literature for me and reinforced the mission behind the brand,” Nicolle said. “It opened my eyes to how sometimes representation isn’t enough. Activism has to happen. There has to be action and community building. Since then, we’ve tried to get the community involved in making sure that books are accessible.”

Recent legislation passed in Florida has led to blanket removals and restrictions of books across the state and limitations on classroom instruction regarding race and diversity, gender identity or sexual orientation, and systemic racism. Florida ranks second in the country, following Texas, with the highest number of book removals, according to a report by PEN America which tracked book bans in schools between July 1 to Dec. 31, 2022. State lawmakers nationwide have followed suit, increasing legislation that would regulate which books public libraries and school districts could offer.

In response, Nicolle began working with organizations that advocate for literature and accessibility to books. She helped curate a collection of over 100 LGBTQIA+ titles for the Center for Gender and Sexuality at Jacksonville University and worked alongside MomsRising, a nonprofit organization that bought and distributed hundreds of banned books throughout the community for free.

“It’s been awesome being able to work with organizations that are really moving and shaking and making a difference. It has opened my eyes because owning books is a privilege. Not everybody can go to the bookstore and drop 30 bucks on a hardcover. So the precedent is on public libraries. These organizations make sure that accessibility is there. That has been our role in aiding organizations that are doing the work,” Nicolle said.

Nicolle’s work has grown out of her understanding that books have power. Growing up as a biracial second-generation Filipino American woman in predominantly white spaces throughout college and the military, Nicolle constantly struggled to understand her identity.

“Books cultivate empathy. They allow us to see different worlds, points of view, cultures, and ideas, and there is a huge importance in keeping those things free-flowing,” Nicolle said. “I was able to ground myself and connect with my culture more through literature. That’s the power of a good book: feeling seen in ways that I’ve never felt seen before.”

The future of Femme Fire Books is as bright as it is mighty. Nicolle hopes to expand Femme Fire Books’ 300-square-foot space and reach a wider audience.

“Bigger picture, I would like to see bookstores like mine be the norm rather than the exception,” Nicolle said. “I wish it would be a very normal thing for a bookstore to reflect how beautifully diverse our country is.”

bottom of page