Freddy’s Feed and Read

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September 15, 2010 · Posted in Commentary 

By Leslie Evans

Mark Watkins, the last owner of Freddy's Feed and Read, 1998


This is about a place I never saw, and which has been gone for twelve years. Even longer ago, back in my Marxist days, in New York in the early seventies I was editor of a monthly magazine called the International Socialist Review. In 1973 we claimed a circulation of 6,851, a bit less than half from subscriptions and the rest listed as dealers and counter sales. The truth about this last is that almost all of the bundles went to branches of the Socialist Workers Party around the country and very few to bookstores. Now and then I would go downstairs in the party’s Manhattan headquarters, where Flax Hermes, the blond athletic business manager, would show me the order lists. Among the handful of nonparty orders one stood out. It was called Freddy’s Feed and Read. The name was odd enough but it was located in the unlikely town of Missoula, Montana.

They had a standing order for 10 or 15 copies of our militantly Marxist journal. I often tried to imagine what Freddy’s could be like. I think the image that came to mind was Ron Crumb’s Mr. Natural standing in front of a shelf of Marxist classics. This lingering romantic picture of a fusion of rural isolation and radical politics was somewhere in the back of my mind when in 1979 I volunteered to move from New York to Virginia, Minnesota, on the Mesabi Iron Range to take a job in the iron mines and help to run a tiny socialist bookstore.

Recently with the magic of the internet I thought I would try to find out more about Freddy’s Feed and Read. How did it get there and did it still exist? Obviously it stocked radical stuff. One internet post said they hung a North Vietnamese flag in the store during the Vietnam War. Fairly brave in a small town in a red state. Montana voted Republican in every presidential election from 1952 to 2008, except for backing Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Bill Clinton, for his first term only, in 1992.

Worse yet, Missoula, in the far west of Montana, is near the border with northern Idaho, the national capital of ultraright-wing survivalist militia nuts, where Rev. Richard Grint Butler built his still-extant anti-Semitic armed Aryan Nations compound at Hayden Lake in the early 1970s. Some years later and even closer there was John Trochmann’s Militia of Montana, founded in 1994 at Noxon, Montana, just a bit northwest of Missoula near the Idaho border.

Missoula in 1970 had a population of 29,497, about twice the size of Virginia, Minnesota. The town is isolated in a mountainous valley of the same name. The name comes from a Flathead Indian word for “place of freezing water,” referring to the Blackfoot River, which runs through the valley and bisects Missoula. Lewis and Clark passed through the valley in 1805, but the first white settlement didn’t appear until 1860. It grew into a small logging town, followed inexplicably by the founding of the University of Montana there in 1895, which helps to explain how Freddy’s could survive. Until the end of the 1970s when the timber petered out, the town was mostly divided between the university and the loggers.

Freddy’s Feed and Read opened in 1972 in a storefront at 1221 Helen Avenue just a block west of the university, which itself is nestled up against the mountains at the east end of town. I never found out who Freddy was. The store was created by a group of local radicals, some university figures, and a few investors who called themselves collectively Our Gang, Inc. At first it only sold books, then it added a small organic market, and in later years a mostly vegetarian restaurant. It lasted twenty-six years, much longer than the International Socialist Review or our ill-fated Iron Range bookstore, closing finally in 1998.

My internet search turned up 205 hits for “Freddy’s Feed and Read.” A New York Times piece from May 12, 1996, titled “The All Too Wild West,” set the stage:

“We stopped in Missoula for lunch at a place called the Mustard Seed. Missoula is a college town — the University of Montana is there . . . . At Freddy’s Feed and Read, a combination bookstore and deli, I picked up a copy of ‘The Journals of Lewis and Clark.’ But the shelves were pretty sparse — and so was the entire town, for that matter, which seemed to consist mostly of above-ground municipal parking lots. The streets were a four-lane grid, unnervingly empty in the middle of the day.”

Reports from Dark Acres

Not too helpful. I hit pay dirt with a 2006 reminiscence by Bill Vaughn headed “Reports from Dark Acres.”

“By the mid-1970s,” Vaughn wrote, “Missoula had become one of those towns like Eugene, Madison and Chapel Hill where hordes of baby boomers finished college but refused to leave. And why should we? You simply couldn’t find the people and the things you’d come to love in places that didn’t have student ghettoes. You bought your bongs and incense and roach clips at the Joint Effort, your organic veggies and tofu at the Good Food Store, and your ramen and your beer and your pinko tracts at Freddy’s Feed and Read.”

Vaughn had been one of the hard core in his day. “ I’d spent my twenties in this dusty warren of offices, obsessed with class struggle, hallucinogenic drugs, and the imminent collapse of monopoly capital. But our lonely campaign of agitprop and radical publishing had been rudely ignored in the crush of our greedy, reactionary countrymen as they boogied down the Disco Highway toward that golden city where the bourgeoisie claimed there would be plenty of cash for everyone. ”

He describes his effort to organize an antiwar demonstration in front of Missoula’s Federal Building in May 1972 to protest Nixon’s mining of Haiphong Harbor. Only three people showed up; himself, his girlfriend, and his best friend. Then five tough looking characters appeared, four men and a woman.

“ The toughest-looking one made his way through the traffic. I got ready to fight. But when he came closer and I saw that his jaw was the size of a gorilla’s I got ready to run. ‘What the fuck is this?’ he said. ‘Who the fuck are you?’ I said. He flicked away his cigarette and went to his pocket. I flinched. What he produced wasn’t knuckles or a knife, however, but a leaflet I’d printed on an ancient flatbed press in the basement of Freddy’s Feed and Read, a leftist book store that also sold groceries to stay in business. ‘ You’re cordially invited to World War III ,’ the banner said. ‘You guys the demonstration?’ I unclenched my fist. ‘Yeah. So far.’ He called across the street. ‘This is it!’”

The four men were Vietnam vets. They and the woman constituted a commune they called the Krik twenty miles out of town. Vaughn and his friends united with the Krik to found Missoula’s own underground newspaper, “Borrowed Times,” which lasted until 1980. It drew around it, he writes, ” a circus of malcontents – anarcho-feminists, crypto-Wobblies, wildcat unionists, Euro-trash homosexuals, Stalinist poets, Maoist fly fishermen, people who would become lawyers.”

This was fascinating but more or less in line with what I had expected to find. As I searched further, however, Freddy’s persona began to enlarge.

A post on The Stanger Forums from October 2009 reminisced about a score of places around the United States and elsewhere the author had visited, including:

“Montana has those puppy hill climb mountains so looking down at Missoula as in a basin was always a pleasure. I lived with my dear sweet across from the President’s mansion in a nice basement apartment with our black and white cat Chaplin. Managed a half-finished painting that was grand. Freddy’s Feed and Read was a place I could volunteer and do something while Kathy went to school and held a job. That is where I found and read Martha Gellhorn. She was still alive then and she responded to my letter. It was postmarked Belize City .”

This was in a standing feature called Eggnog’s Corner. A bit more searching disclosed that Eggnog is Mac Crary, son of Ryland Wesley Crary. Ryland had been a World War II Navy veteran and author of several books on education and human rights. Eggnog says that when he was a child a gang of his father’s enemies beat him so severely he was left brain damaged and deaf. He sometimes signs himself the Deaf Poet. His posts are mostly deep in conspiracy theories, ranging from Homeland Security being responsible for 911 (wasn’t that before Homeland Security was created?) and AIDs as a U.S. plot.

On March 13, 2009, Chicago author Keir Graff in his Likely Stories blog on the national Booklist Online website lamented the passing of independent bookstores. In the comments below, Joel Reese wrote, “ R.I.P., Freddy’s Feed and Read.” Unexpectedly, Graff not only knew what Reese was talking about but he had lived in Missoula as a teenager, where he attended Hellgate High School (yes, that was its real name). Graff r esponded, “ Ah, Freddy’s, where I read Jonah Hex on stools made out of tree stumps….”

I next turned up a poem by Mary Scriver, who signs herself Prairie Mary, posted in November 2007. It was a bit long but in part it read:

“Sharon is much braver than I am — she lives in Missoula. For three years I visited Missoula twice a month, staying in a basement full of spiders. . . .

“Sharon is in Missoula — where hippies have shacked up with old broke lumberjacks and mill workers who live in the little rental houses along the river that the lumber company provided and is about to sell out from under them. They met in ‘blue collar’ bars, which are very trendy among students and attract poets, though out-of-work displaced lumberjacks can get mean.

“Sharon is in Missoula — where the Freddy’s Feed ‘n Read, a co-op for fine books and organic foods, is no longer and I’m still pouting about it. Commerce is dangerous even in Missoula.”

Next came something that was really off in a different direction. A May 2008 piece in The Missoulian, the local town paper, was headed “Sweet success – Pastry chef Margaret Ambrose-Barton has made a career out of baking for Missoula’s finest eateries.”

Pastry chef Margaret Ambrose-Barton

“If you’ve dined out in Missoula over the past 17 years or so, chances are you’ve eaten one of Margaret Ambrose-Barton’s fabulous desserts,” it began. “A professional baker since 1991, when she graduated from Missoula’s Vo-Tech Institute (now the College of Technology), Margaret bakes all the special occasion cakes, including wedding cakes, at Pearl Cafe and Bakery. She also provides desserts for Biga Pizza and The Shack.”

After the breakup of her first marriage, as a single mother with two children Margaret took her pastry chef training, remarried to a mostly absentee husband who was a congressional aide in Washington, DC, and got her first job — as pastry chef at Freddy’s Feed and Read. A Marxist bookstore with a pastry chef?! She was there for seven years.

“‘I worked from 3 a.m. until about 11 a.m., and I baked all the morning pastries and the desserts for the day,’ she said, shaking her head in wonder at the schedule. ‘I also baked my first wedding cakes then, which set the foundation for what I’d be doing over the coming years.’” supplied yet another axis. They carried a post about the book “ Sidewalks in the Kingdom : New Urbanism and the Christian Faith” by theologian Eric Jacobsen. Booklinks’ review comments, “Jacobsen sees the city as a hopeful place, where community, tradition, and beauty come together on a human scale — a vision that an eclectic mix of architects, city planners, and sociologists has recently promoted as the New Urbanism.” What does this have to do with Freddy’s? The Christianbook site ran an interview with Jacobsen, who is evidently a native of Missoula:

“ : Briefly tell us what inspired you to write Sidewalks in the Kingdom .

“ Eric Jacobsen : About two blocks from my house was a little bookstore/coffee shop called Freddy’s Feed and Read which had become an informal gathering spot for the neighborhood. After the owner died, Freddy’s couldn’t make it financially, so the owner of the building went looking for a new tenant who could continue the role that Freddy’s had played in our neighborhood. I won’t get into the details here, but this process brought to light the fact that our neighborhood was zoned for residences only which meant that places like Freddy’s were illegal according to our current zoning codes. It turns out 60% of our neighborhood was non-compliant with current zoning codes. And yet, ours was the most desirable neighborhood in Missoula. This got me thinking why so many zoning codes make it illegal to build the kinds of traditional neighborhoods that a lot of people want to live in. I’m not the only person to ask this kind of question – there is a whole slew of books reviving the notion of a traditional neighborhood – but at the time of writing Sidewalks in the Kingdom, the Christian community seemed to be completely left out of this conversation. I wrote Sidewalks to remedy that situation.”

Environmental scholar J. W. Smith in his 1994 book The World’s Wasted Wealth 2 thanks Fred Rice, manager of Freddy’s Feed and Read, for encouraging him to write the book.

I found an online post by poet Greg Rappleye, winner of the prestigious Brittingham Prize in Poetry for 2000 for his book A Path Between Houses (University of Wisconsin Press). The dustcover describes the work:

“These are tough-minded poems about loss, and what comes afterwards – the difficult work of rebuilding a life. Greg Rappleye gathers his material across a vast American landscape, from the Florida Keys through the Nevada Desert to the California Coast, rocketing around the country with some strange friends – Odysseus, William Faulkner, Frank Sinatra, and private eye Jim Rockford. Rappleye is not afraid to implicate the self, building a heroic persona in the classic sense – a person in whom the flaws are as celebrated as the occasional triumph.”

In his own post Rappleye celebrates the work of the late short story writer and poet Raymond Carver (1938-1988). Rappleye writes:

“I love all of Carver’s work, but the poems in Ultramarine (Vintage Books, 1987) are particular favorites of mine. I bought the collection in 1989 in Missoula, Montana, at a great little bookstore called Freddy’s Feed and Read, on my way to The Yellow Bay Writers’ Workshop. This may be the book that persuaded me my future was in poetry, not fiction.”

It seems that many lives were touched, and in unexpected ways, by the little remote bookstore cum deli.

End of the Line

“Final Feed, Last Read” was the headline in the November 15, 1998, Missoulian:

“Landmark Missoula bookstore Freddy’s Feed and Read is closing after 26 years. A small letter placed in the window of Freddy’s Feed and Read on Friday the 13th has been a shocking weekend read for fans of the alternative bookstore. Its message: The university area’s one-stop shop for books by local authors and tofu shepherd’s pie announced it is closing the doors after 26 years. ‘Freddy’s has always been a business swimming upstream,’ said owner Mark Watkins. ‘We’ve been struggling all year, but the culmination has come very quickly.’ Too quickly for some, who learned of the news Saturday as they came to the neighborhood hub for their morning cup of coffee and to thumb through new stock.

“‘I’m devastated–it’s like a death in the family,’ said Judith Holloway. She and her husband, Steven, have been customers since Freddy’s opened in the early 1970s. ‘It’s a part of our daily lives.’

The final straw had been the opening of a Barnes & Noble chain store in Missoula. Freddy’s responded with a last ditch effort to keep alive by enrolling with twenty-six other independent bookstores in a 1997 collective lawsuit against Barnes & Noble/Borders claiming the marketing giant gave secret discounts to its own stores that were denied to the independents. The independents called themselves the American Booksellers Association, which included the Ventura Book Store and the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica, but such famous independents as Moe’s in Berkeley, the Strand in Manhattan, and Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, did not join. The case wasn’t settled until 2001, when Barnes & Noble paid $2.3 million to reimburse the ABA’s legal fees but included no damages.

The Missoulian’s 1998 epitaph eulogy added, “It was a place that tried to keep up with its unique clientele, beginning as a bookstore, expanding into a bookstore with an organic grocery store and bulk food, to its current identity as a haven for local authors and customers who prefer meals prepared deli-style, with sinfully decadent desserts, Watkins said.

“‘It is a really supportive environment for first-time authors and local writers,’ said Deirdre McNamer, a Missoula author whose first book, ‘Rima In the Weeds ,’ found a place at Freddy’s. ‘It was a warm feeling to go to a book signing there – a small moment of triumph in a place I hung out for years and poked through other people’s first novels,’ she said.

“It’s the down-home quality of Freddy’s that will be missed by retirees John and Margie Rasmussen. They bike to Freddy’s from their South Side home almost every weekend to enjoy the intimate atmosphere.”

When the store was gone a fight began over a pizza parlor request to finally change the zoning to allow it to take over the premises. The Missoula Independent described the hearing:

“It was an evening pregnant with childhood reminiscences of the beloved bookstore and grocery, replete with nostalgic accounts of nickel-priced cookies sold out of a glass jar on Freddy’s counter, children thumbing through comic books, and university radicals lounging around smoking cigarettes while planning the next socialist utopia.”

The once-revolutionary enterprise had mellowed to become a sentimental icon revered for its homey memories. It bore more than a passing resemblance to Jimmy Stewart’s bank in It’s a Wonderful Life, providing inspiration to authors, poets, and pastry chefs.

The city council rejected the pizza parlor. The next tenant at 1221 Helen Avenue was Quarter Moon Books. They were succeeded by the Bear’s Brew Coffee House, and finally the property is today shared by the Java U coffee house and the Secret Seconds thrift store.

Missoula author Deidre McNamer's Rima in the Weeds


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