The locked box by the register at the Finish Line restaurant caught their eyes: “Frank Talk, 50 cents.” Who sells a magazine that way these days? And for that price?
But that was the price of satisfaction for my housemate’s curiosity last week. She and her friends discovered a publication that has papered the counters of local homes and businesses for 17 years.
For a group whose social and political updates come from a buffet of Facebook apps, online news-“papers,” and the occasional podcast, “Frank Talk” has to have an unusual flavor. A 20-page pamphlet-cum-family newsletter-cum-travel company ad, the monthly “magazine” is in every way unexpected, except for those in the know — local Frank loyalists who follow its familiar columnists, outings, and lifestyle advice.
“It’s strictly an entertainment magazine, not a political one. I put it all together, and me and my wife and another volunteer do all the editing,” said publisher, editor, designer, and distributor Jim Frank, who runs the magazine and the connected travel company from his home north of Reading, Michigan.
Frank Talk’s 660th volume is a virtual whirlwind of variety despite its black and white dressings and its home-computer origins. These sometimes cause problems, as happened this month, when two laptops crash during production. In this issue, Frank welcomes his readers to the magazine with this front-page story: “I would like to issue one warning to all of you in FRANK TALK land … beware of flying laptops! (I will likely throw that one soon)!”
The folds of the magazine reveal a mix of personal columns, advice pieces, word games, ads for tours, and clean, seasonal jokes (a typical Valentine’s Day Tickle: “Love is blind, only marriage opens your eyes”). The two-column format reveals itself to be amenable to an astonishing variety of typefaces: Comic Sans, Arial, and Arial italic give their own tone to the reflections, musings, and recommendations of the Frank Talk regulars, of whom there have been more than 35 over the years, from all over the world: California, Australia, Japan, Texas, and Hillsdale township.
“We don’t tell our writers what they can write; only what they can’t,” Frank said of his editorial process. “We don’t get religious; they can’t argue for a particular church. Same with politics. That way we’re immune to what other publications suffer from. Other magazines are old news by the time they come out. But nothing gets old about a personal column on their college life or retirement or something somebody’s idiotic husband did, so we don’t lose readership.”
Frank described a path to the pamphlets eclectic as the magazine itself. An Iowa native, he started finding lucrative niches in business early: At 17, he bought six bikes and started renting them in gas stations. Soon, he needed more bikes, and after taking a job as DJ, he was moving too fast for college. A series of radio stations followed; in the 60s, he owned the second-most-popular AM broadcast station in the Washington, D.C., area, thanks to advertising shticks like painting company convertibles tie-dye colors and driving around the city picking up listeners.
The radio stint ended in Toledo in 1972. A redwood furniture store was next, along with a whole amusement park of other businesses: Antique malls, consulting, apartment buildings, ice cream, donuts.
Fortune brought him to Hillsdale’s public relations department, where he wrote until 2001, when he resigned to launch Frank Talk.
Of course, the magazine wasn’t a retirement, but a platform for his own writing, and eventually for his next venture: a travel company, which hosts trips across North America. This year, there are eight trips, with slots for about 50 people each. This year, Frank Talk On The Road will visit Charleston, the Smoky Mountains, the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in Kentucky, the Grand Canyon, Canada, Washington, D.C., and Nashville.
“The purpose of the magazine now is equally maintaining the magazine that people like to read and also advertising for trips,” Frank said. And although increased as travel ads began taking up more space, that’s not why readers continue to follow Frank Talk, and it’s certainly not why one collector recently scored $60 on eBay for all 600ish issues of the magazine.
That credit goes to the writers: “So many writers have a niche. The reader feels a sense of knowing who they are and what they think,” Frank said.
Frank said readers often ask about his family, many of whom write for every issue. His wife, Pat, is the resident dog expert (“She gets pretty opinionated,” according to Jim) — his daughter, Tricia, has chronicled three divorces and a successful career, and his grandchildren have learned to write, type, and tell stories in the magazine’s pages.
“I have a granddaughter who’s written for all 660 issues, since she was four years old,” Frank said. “She’s graduating from Spring Arbor University in May, and people have seen her grow up in the magazine.”
The granddaughter in question is Olivia Olmstead, who, in her 17 years as “Just Ask Olivia,” has traced a family move to the Coldwater area, college and career decisions, her student teaching position in Flint, and her plans for her upcoming wedding in May.
“We lived next door to my grandparents in Reading until I was 8 or 9, and I would ‘write’ a column for them every week, which meant that Mom would ask me questions, and I would be a smart aleck in my answers and she would type it up,” Olmstead said.
Frank’s other grandchildren may be more precocious: Trenton, 8, and Luci, 10, type their own columns, this month about Mona the new cat (“We all said her name was after Mona Lisa. I am not sure who that is but I have heard of her”) and school drama (of which Luci is not a fan, although she guesses “drama comes in handy because it made me write a column about it. Haha.”).
Lisa Slade, owner of the Finish Line restaurant in Hillsdale, has stocked the magazine since its first issue, and she said she often flips through a publication whose subject matter and characters have become familiar to many in the area.
“People come in and look for them, and I go through most of it,” Slade said. “The articles are interesting. It’s a different kind of publication, not like CNN or Fox News. I think it’s a cool, small town publication. You wouldn’t find something like that in a big city.”
Slade and Frank talk about the magazine’s popularity when he drops by as part of his day-and-a-half-long delivery runs to more than 60 locations across three states. This time commitment was part of the reason the magazine scaled back from its weekly print cycle last year.
“We’re publishing monthly now, partly because we’re in our 70s, and frankly, we’re slowing down a bit,” Frank said. But as with his travel company, it’s less about slowing down than about making time for adventures: “The reason we do the trips is income, yes, but also for fun, for something to do. It’s the same as the magazine — my idea is that if I retire, I won’t be here very long.”
And after all, Frank Talk has a loyal readership to maintain, one that feels like they know the Franks and their relatives after 17 years of family entertainment: “There’s a real family draw. We have people ask, ‘How’s Olivia doing? I’ve read about her all her life.’”
This issue, Olmstead laid out her plans to bring Frank Talk to Flint, where she is student teaching this semester. “OFF I GO!” she wrote. “I have wrapped up the 3 ½ years on campus and I am heading into my last semester student teaching off campus. It is a feeling that is hard to explain. I guess I always thought that leaving college would be this big emotional thing.”
Frank Talk readers around Hillsdale — The Finish Line, Kroger, Spangler’s Diner in Jonesville, and others — will see her along (and, she said, will send her plenty of email feedback along the way).
“I think it’s a great way to reach people over the generation gap, to talk about social issues, where I am and where I’m going, and what’s going on in my life and my world,” Olmstead said. “I don’t know how I would stop writing. It’s something I just do — it’s part of me.”