Written by Sadie Kimbrough
Edited by Lynda Sleeter and Ben Hurst
My handcrafted latte sits on a coaster decorated with an image of the woman sitting to my left. The coaster’s not the only portrait of Joslynn Fish in the room, as she motions to a lively bulletin board of fan art.
Fish didn’t create South Press to be adored. Her loyal customers return because of the safety and belongingness that her shop offers.
“I always say that we sell coffee to keep the lights on here,” she jokes, greeting each customer that arrives. “What we’re really providing here is community.”
Fish’s queer, rural roots brought her to Knoxville at a young age, seeking anonymity and the freedom to be authentic. She has called the city home for the past 25 years.
“I found community here in Knoxville, and been a part of that community and pretty plugged in. I have been through the evolution of Knoxville queer history.”
Upon her arrival to the city, the queer community gave sanctuary to Fish, who at the time was working for $2.13 an hour serving tables at Cracker Barrel.
Although she was too young to enter Knoxville’s former dance club, the Carousel, elder queers often noticed her lingering outside.
“By the end of the night, they would buy me a basket of french fries. I don’t think they knew at the time that was perhaps the only sustenance I had that day.”
Despite finding companionship in Knoxville, Fish and the queer community were still met with intolerance and prejudice. She witnessed the police target young gay men, and she experienced discriminatory violence first-hand.
“I remember when they first built that high rise off White Avenue. The first semester that students moved in there, they threw full cans of soda at us out the window,” recalls Fish. “When they hit the pavement, they just exploded.”
Her experiences fueled her desire to eventually build a safe space for queer people in Knoxville, particularly one that does not center around alcohol.
“I guess I could have said, ‘Wow! The Knoxville community really deserves a social, sober, queer space. Somebody should do that.’ Instead, I said, ‘Knoxville is really deserving of a social, sober, queer space. What can I do with my pool of retirement?'”
Seventeen years of Cracker Barrel retirement transformed an old tax office on Chapman Highway into the vibrantly embellished coffee shop that is South Press.
After losing her job at the start of the pandemic, Fish took a risk and gave the 800 square foot space a face lift. She completed much of the construction herself.
“Every time I did something that I didn’t know I knew how to do, I found a little bit more worth in myself. I learned that I am capable of so much more than anyone else has ever given me credit for.”
With a supportive partner and community in her corner, Fish became the first trans person in East Tennessee to own a business and publicly be open about her identity.
“What we’re doing here is revolutionary, literally. But somebody had to do it. It was absurd to me that no trans woman had claimed a seat at the table that we helped to create. I wanted to change that and empower other people to do the same.”
Not only does Fish empower fellow trans people in the region to become public entrepreneurs, but she also inspires young LGBTQ people across the country, having established a following of over 45,000 on TikTok.
“I think it’s good for young queer and trans people to see an adult trans person who’s happy, healthy and well-adjusted who is not privileged already,” she says. “I’m not apologetically trans. I don’t try to go stealth. I maintain a very public trans image because that’s who I am. I cannot change that, and I wouldn’t.”
Fish’s pioneering and inclusive nature are not the only qualities that make her business successful.
The physical hodgepodge that is her shop sparks wonder and intrigue in her customers. South Press is covered in pre-loved furniture, board games, Barbie dolls, an expansive mug collection, and tons of local art.
Local queer artists receive forefront and physical space to showcase their work.
“We celebrate queer artistry here, whatever that looks like, whatever the medium.”
When South Press showcases artists, Fish considers her benefit to be gaining new decorations on her walls and therefore takes zero commission from the artist.
“That’s their way of making a living. I sell coffee for a living, and I’m pretty okay at it. If you were a starving artist, and you need that painting to sell to pay your light bill, or buy more paint or canvas, you are the creator; you deserve your money.”
The art is locally sourced, and so are the food and drinks. From the artisan coffee to the apple butter, Fish works with 8 different small businesses to nourish her customers.
“You’re getting the best that your local community has to offer,” Fish triumphs. “It allowed us, for this small 800 square foot room, to send an echo or reverberation out into the community. Yes, we sell coffee, but there are all these other businesses that stimulate our heartbeat.”
Fish believes in supporting her local community as well as serving the planet. South Press keeps its carbon footprint low by composting and recycling nearly all of its waste.
“Is it an additional cost to source things locally? Absolutely yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely yes. Is it more work and more cost to compost and provide sustainable to-go containers? Absolutely yes. But, is it worth it? Also, absolutely yes.”
Within the next few months, South Press will move to a larger location a few doors down. The sizable 2500 square foot space will accommodate more patrons, performances, artist showcases, and hopefully more Barbie dolls.
There is an additional 300 square foot room that Fish hopes to set aside for social justice organization and community classes.
“You start your dream where you can afford, and you go from there,” she reflects. "Who expects opening a business in the middle of the pandemic, outgrowing your space, and needing more?”
The success of South Press demonstrates the profound impact an inclusive space can have on a community, particularly when someone proves its possibility and blazes the trail.
In her new space, Fish aims to maintain the celebration of art, encouragement of camaraderie, and freedom of expression that exists within her coffee shop.
South Press is currently located at 3715 Chapman Highway, open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 to 5pm. Masks are required upon entry.