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Jim and Pat Frank with friends John and Carol Kmiotek. Courtesy

 

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.”