Bicycles, books and beer

How a man with no plan built a community around literature and social activism

 

Somewhere in the middle of a long explanation about how the Zen of bicycles and the transcendentalism of agriculture are central to the high literature-slash-activist mission of his publishing company, Todd Simmons' train of thought finally pulls out of the station, leaving him on the platform staring after it.

"Is this even making any sense?" he asks after a pause. "Bicycles? Agriculture? What am I talking about?"

He sighs and then smiles, running his hands over the sandpaper start of a blond beard. Dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and an ever-present short-brimmed bicycle cap, the 33-year-old sits in the corner of his claustrophobic office, surrounded by cardboard boxes and overflowing bookshelves.

"At times I can see how it all works," he says, "and at other times it's like, 'What's going on?' "

The "it" in question is Wolverine Farm Publishing, a grassroots imprint that Simmons runs from the back of a coffee shop and used book store in Fort Collins, Colo. On the surface, it wouldn't seem that hard to describe. Since 2002, Wolverine Farm has held a quirky niche dominated by its flagship publication, the Matter Journal. Each issue of this biannual literary/art journal centers loosely around a theme -- land, transportation or fuel, for example -- and features 30 to 50 contributors. Most are Western authors, artists and photographers, who range from the well-known (Laura Pritchett, Laura Resau, Teresa Funke) to those just finding their voices.

"That's one of the virtues of Matter," Simmons says. "There's a lot of diversity. There's a common foundation under all of these writers, but they're certainly interpreting the world as individuals."

But Wolverine Farm does more than publish a journal. Its wide-ranging, practical commitment to environmental stewardship, ecological sustainability, preserving wild lands and fostering communities is evident in everything it does. Sales of donated books at the Matter Bookstore provide the organization's financial backbone. Inspired by its founder's (and readers') love of bicycles, the company has begun publishing a line of bicycling almanacs called Boneshaker, and it prints a free guide to local community-conscious businesses called the Great Ecstatic Reporter. It also recently launched a news-oriented Web site, matterdaily.org.

When Matter first appeared in book format (it started as a tabloid), local writer Evan P. Schneider reviewed it. "I wrote that it has very good intentions and aspirations," he says, "but it didn't seem to have a cohesive direction." Schneider didn't realize that this was mostly by design. "We were kind of the 'pissed-off young (but) not-getting-any-younger people' who really wanted to make a change and do something more direct than sitting in a meeting talking about mission statements," Simmons says.

Still, Schneider was impressed enough to contribute to subsequent issues and to offer to help edit them. The chance to be published was only part of the attraction; he responded to Simmons' underlying call to action. "Overarchingly, Todd's vision is very, very magnetic," says Schneider, who, as the editor of the Boneshaker books, is one of Wolverine Farm's few paid employees. "He has the ability to attract people to him who want to do good in the community."

Simmons describes his small legion of volunteers as something of a rapid-response task force, a squadron of hippie bicyclists who are as well-schooled in literature and activism as they are in agriculture and bike repair. They do everything from running the bookstore's cash registers to assisting with literacy outreach programs to helping local farmers recover from natural disasters. In recent years, they've worked with Save the Poudre, a group fighting a proposed reservoir, and helped run Wolverine Farm's "Project Sweatshop," which teaches children about farming. They've rallied support for an ordinance to allow residents to keep backyard chickens, and organized bike parades to encourage alternative transportation and healthy living.

"Sometimes you feel like you don't know why you're out there helping out," says 22-year-old volunteer Grant Souders, who pitches in at the bookstore and helped replant hail-damaged crops at a community-supported farm this summer. "But after working on the farm and seeing the bookstore grow and have a positive effect on the community, it makes it worthwhile."