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."
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."