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South Press: A Cheerfully Queer Coffee Shop

WRITTEN BY Izzy Alexander

“A safe space for everyone who finds the world to be a scary place.”

It’s easy to spot South Press from the street; the pride flag hanging underneath cheerful plants advertises the cute coffee-and-tea shop as a safe place. Its eclectic and cozy interior, filled to the brim with fairy Barbies hanging from the ceiling and local queer art peppering the lively walls, only enforces that overwhelmingly homey feeling. 

South Press is quite a young store, having just celebrated her first birthday last month. The owner, founder and barista Joslynn Fish greets customers with a warm welcome. 

“South Press gets a birthday, because she’s kind of a living thing,” Fish said. 

Last September, off the heels of a job loss due to the covid-19 pandemic, Fish opened the first iteration of South Press and quickly found that the 800-square-feet she’d had to operate from was not enough to satisfy the needs of her community.

In December, she began the process of renovating a new location — a 2,800-square-foot spot with a bigger kitchen, a dining room complete with a cabinet full of board games, a plush living room area in front of the bright window, an open mic stage and three functional libraries. 

Fish first opened South Press as a safe place for the local Knoxville queer community. In a mix of a college town and a real, thriving city, South Press fulfills a gap in the community by providing a sober queer gathering space for people of all ages. She says her shop is especially important for college-aged queer people.

“Young [queer] people need to be around adult queer people who are happy, and healthy, and well-adjusted, properly loved and thriving … because I didn’t have that as a young person,” Fish said.

There are so few safe places for gathering within the queer community that don’t rely predominantly on alcohol. 

“I wanted to create a space where people could come and be social, and alcohol not be in the center of the room,” Fish said.

In a sense, Fish explained, this lack of sober spaces for the queer community means they often fail to make meaningful connections and friendships with each other. South Press remedies this problem. 

“This is a place to make friends, not drinking buddies,” Fish said.

South Press operates in service to local South Knoxville neighborhoods, the queer and BIPOC communities of greater Knoxville and Mother Earth. 

Fish ensures that all food waste is composted, dine-in beverages are brewed in washable mugs and to-go drinks are served in compostable cups. Also, Fish sources groceries from 13 local, family-owned farms and businesses.

As a transgender woman, Fish says her relationship with womanhood and feminism is integral to her sense of community. When asked what she thought the most striking aspect of womanhood was, her answer was simple and powerful: authenticity. 

“Womanhood is about being authentic. It’s about finally not having to be apologetic about who I am,” Fish said.

Fish explains that she and other trans women in middle age often feel as though they’re catching up; trying bold, colorful makeup and glittery nail polish that sets them apart from cisgender women who were allowed to experiment with those things growing up.

Fish is realizing as she grows older that she wants to distance herself from aspects of performative femininity that she feels are inauthentic to her own understanding of womanhood and identity. 

Authentic femininity, according to Fish, is carrying herself with strength.

“I’m not going to apologize for being strong — that’s not an attribute that’s left over from my former self. I am a strong woman,” Fish said.

It’s also refusing to give merit to the patriarchal concept that all women must perform traditional femininity to have value. Just being herself, as a happy, satisfied, strong woman, is authentic womanhood.

Women do not owe anyone a performance of inauthentic femininity, and South Press allows for queer and trans women to grapple with this discussion and dichotomy by creating a safe space for these dialogues to occur.

Ultimately, South Press is a smashing success, not only in its ability to bring the local queer community to a place of friendship and dialogue about social justice issues, but in the effect it’s had on her, too. 

“Before this place ever made a dollar, it had paid for itself in terms of ‘Wow, I’m capable of so much more than I had given myself credit for,’” Fish said.

Joslynn Fish has designed and built a coffee shop from the ground up, where she has loved and served so many people. 

“Now, I just think I can do anything.” 

South Press is located at 3715 Chapman Highway, Knoxville, TN 37920. You can find them on Instagram at @south_press4coffee. Many thanks to the lovely Joslynn Fish of South Press, for her raw conversation, vulnerability and delicious peach tea.