So far, Wolverine Farm's success has been modest, but in the words of Gary Wockner, a board member as well as a contributing writer and volunteer editor, it's "organic, evolving and financially solvent." The company prints 1,000 to 1,500 copies of each issue of Matter and Boneshaker, and sells enough to finance the next batch. Bookstore sales make up any shortfalls and pay the salaries of Wolverine Farm's four employees (the journal's contributors aren't paid). Matter is on the racks in such esteemed outlets as Portland's Powell's Books and San Francisco's City Lights, but most copies are sold close to home, in Fort Collins.
That location has helped the company flourish. While most northern Colorado communities have older, more conservative populations, Fort Collins enjoys a healthy blend of college students, young families, entrepreneurs and retirees. These disparate groups intersect at The Bean Cycle, the bohemian coffee shop that shares space with the Matter Bookstore in the heart of the city. There, Blackberry-tethered businessmen stand in line behind dreadlocked street urchins, and neither seems to notice the contrast. The open, high-ceilinged space is chock-full of colorful couches, a scattering of tables and an old standup piano that invites impromptu performances. Toward the front of the store is a counter piled with literature, fliers and bulletin board pin-ups promoting Wolverine Farm's various issues and causes. The bookstore occupies the back, with its well-thumbed titles crammed onto shelves lining nooks and crannies and the walls of a loft filled with more tables and chairs. The eclecticism is perfectly in keeping with Simmons' interest in what he calls "the tension of borders," a concept that explains Wolverine Farm's vision as well as anything.
"Choosing Wolverine Farm as the name, I don't know if I thought about it consciously at the time, but I have a personal interest in … the beauty of the tension of borders, where the disparate worlds collide," Simmons says. "There's something wild like a wolverine and something settled like a farm, that's where those worlds meet."
Not all the tensions have been easy to accommodate. Simmons came to Fort Collins in 2002 after quitting a National Park Service job, disillusioned by the agency's goal of conserving land while promoting recreation. For Simmons -- who grew up reading Henry David Thoreau, Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold -- the tension between those competing aims crossed into hypocrisy. In his brief two-year tenure, he worked in 14 parks from Mount Rainier in Washington to Biscayne National Park in Florida, specializing in park visitation and recreation. "I knew I couldn't fit in there," he says. "Maybe that's what hurt so much -- that the parks were so gorgeous and they needed so much management."
So Simmons embarked on a new path, one blazed by the Beats, another group of writers he admired. He built a yurt, strapped it to his Ford Escort and hit the road, eventually camping in a friend's backyard in Fort Collins where he released his frustration old-school style, on a typewriter.
"It's horribly cheesy," he says, "but it's all true. ... I've always turned back to writing when I came to loose ends. When I didn't know how to make sense of the world, I would always try to work it out. I never thought about making a career out of it."
In fact, it seemed at times as if he actively avoided making a career out of it. The ways he dreamed up to share his ideas sometimes edged into eccentricity. He asked the New Belgium Brewing Co., a Fort Collins mainstay that promotes bicycle culture as much as the microbrews it produces, to be his sponsor: He wanted to bike around the state like a wandering minstrel, giving impromptu readings.
Ultimately, he spent his modest nest egg launching Matter Journal, primarily as a forum for his work and that of some likeminded friends. After three issues, the people he started the venture with moved on, and Simmons had to eke out a living serving coffee and working odd jobs. But when he first published Matter in book format, hundreds showed up for the release party. "It was an unparalleled experience," Simmons says, and it inspired him to scrape his way toward the next issue.
He opened the bookstore in 2005 "with zero dollars" and a lot of wishful thinking. Within six weeks, he says, hundreds of people had come through the doors to both donate books and buy them. Just this year, Simmons secured nonprofit status for Wolverine Farm, giving the venture more funding opportunities. These days, working with New Belgium, it sells more books through the brewery's Tour de Fat (a 12-city bike and beer celebration) than at any other outlet.
With the financial pressure eased, Simmons is now focused on the future. Next year, he plans to publish an Edward Abbey-inspired issue of Matter Journal. He wants to start publishing single-author books and build a community around the nascent Web site.
The seemingly schizophrenic nature of Wolverine Farm doesn't faze its founder or its board members. "We sit there in board meetings just sort of twisting our heads, not knowing where it's going to go," Wockner says. "But it's working. Todd likes to keep it small and funky and on the edge. If it had a permanent funding source and a mission statement that he was required to adhere to, he probably wouldn't last much longer."
Simmons likes to say that the real credit belongs to those who make changes themselves. It's never long before someone still slightly sweaty from a bike ride pokes a head in the office door, looking for a chance to help out. There's plenty to do, whether sorting newly donated books or organizing a poetry slam.
"It's not the Todd Simmons show," he says. "Countless people have aided and abetted all these operations. I don't know what people see on the outside, but at the core it's driven by a true desire to make a positive impact on the world. A lot of things we do are cut-and-dried: book publishing, literacy outreach.
"But," he adds with a smile, "we tweak it enough to make it just a little bit crazy."