My First publisher

TERRANCE HJ GAVAN – EDITOR JULY 24, 2012

I just received word that Mervin Farmer, former owner of Interlake Publishing passed away after a pitched battle with cancer.

I was interviewed by the editor of the Stonewall Argus and Teulon Times, Darren Ridgely, for a retrospective the paper is doing on Swervin’ Mervin.

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The historic post office in Stonewall is just across the parking lot from the old Stonewall Argus offices.

When I  was hired by Interlake Publishing back in the late 80s that’s what we called him.

Swervin’ Mervin.

The moniker was an homage to Swervin’ Mervin Fernandez, a star wide receiver for the BC Lions. Merv was an avid sports fan and the fact that he was okay with his staff referring to him as Swervin’ Mervin provides you with some measure of the man.

Simply put, he was the best publisher and owner I ever worked for.

He was fair, he was no-nonsense, he was deliberative, he was kind.

He was a fair trader and he led by example.

I was hired by our Managing Editor Lorne Reimer.

At no time during that interview process was I ever introduced to Merv.

For a week and a half – it may have been three weeks – I never met Merv. No one introduced me. Our offices at the Argus and Times was a rabbit warren of nooks, crannies and corridors.

But it was by no means cavernous. It was a small office and it got very crowded on production days when three papers, The Interlake Spectator, The Argus and the Selkirk Journal were all in putting papers together the old fashioned way.

That included pasting typed copy and pictures onto tabloid sized cardboard sheets. [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Painstaking work compared to the way it’s done today.]

I went through two production weeks knowing that the boss was in the building, but I never put together exactly which one of the employees rushing around the office was “Swervin’ Mervin.”

I knew that Merv was the guy who took all those cardboard folios to the Winnipeg Sun for printing on Monday nights. I would hang around sometimes, before heading over to Miller’s Bar for our staff cool down, to see just who was getting into the old truck and heading down the road for the half hour ride from Stonewall to the Sun.

No joy. And by this time I was embarrassed to ask the other staffers about the identity of our ghost of an owner.

My fault of course. I was looking for a suit. Merv Farmer was not a suit. He was a hands on owner and publisher.

I finally “met” our owner by chance one morning. The papers would come back from the Sun and when we were rushed? All of the staff would pitch in stuffing flyers into the printed tabloid weeklies.

The guy who took the lead in the huge process of stuffing 5,000 flyers into the Spectator, or Argus or Journal was the same guy in an ink stained blue smock that I had seen wandering the halls every day since I arrived at the Argus and Times.

I was taking a turn at the binding machine bundling the papers with yellow vinyl strapping.

And the guy with the smock came up and showed me an easier way to do it. His hands were black as a coal miner’s and so were mine.

The smock was the same smock he wore on a daily basis.

He tapped me on the shoulder and said that I didn’t have to be there. I said that I had some time and wanted to pitch in.

He commented about a sports article I had written and then went back to join nine other people in the flyer line.

Later that morning Lorne Reimer came up and asked what Merv had to say to me.

I looked my editor in the eye and said: “Lorne… I’ll let you in on a secret. I have no idea which one of these guys is Merv Farmer.”

Lorne was an honest and meticulous guy. But he had three papers to edit every Monday. So he was seldom without some preoccupation jiggling around his jangled synapses.

“Oh, my god,” said Lorne. “I’m so sorry. I meant to introduce you that first day and I just forgot. Are you saying you really don’t know who Merv is?”

“No goddam idea at all,” I laughed. “But I address everyone I meet with care and concise politeness.”

“Merv is the guy who helped you with the bundler,” said Lorne, still apologetic and still shaking his head.

“The guy in the old blue ink-stained smock is our owner?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yes, that’s Merv,” laughed Lorne. “Terry, I’m sorry.”

“No problem,” I said, and snuck a glance at my boss, sharing a Coke with his longtime friend and one of our typesetters Art Essery.

I looked over at Lorne. “Now I know I’m gonna’  like it here,” I said, chuckling.

Merv Farmer, about three months into my tenure at Interlake Publishing, asked me why my wife and I were renting.

I shrugged. It was a good question.

Merv, I found out later,  hated the notion of paying for something that eschewed a buildup of equity.

He told me to look around town for a house. Then he said he’d help us out with a mortgage loan.

I looked at him incredulously. And I think I nodded. I remember staring at my boss looking for a smile. Or an “April Fools.” Nothing to indicate that he was having me on though.

“Um, err, sure Merv,” I said and slid out of his tiny office. It was the most ingenuous offer I had ever received, then… and since.

I went into the typesetting room where Art and Myrna and Tina sat before these huge Compugraphic machines.

Tina looked up and smiled.

“You look confused,” she said.

I nodded.

“I just had a strange conversation with Merv.” I said.

“About what?” Tina asked.

“I think he just offered me a loan on a mortgage,” I said.

“He hates renting and the thought of someone paying rent,” laughed Tina. “He thinks it’s a waste of money.”

“So… soo… he meant it?” I asked.

“Of course he did,” said Tina. “How do you think Stan and I got a mortgage for our house.”

Stan, who was an artist, guitar repairer and fiddle maker, and Tina lived in a rambling old home on one of Stonewall’s picturesque streets.

“Wow,” I said. “Wow.”

Merv Farmer died this week.

Four months ago I was going to touch base with him.

And tell him about a bad experience I was having with another in my long list of “ersatz and petty” news publishers I have had the opportunity to work with since leaving Interlake. I was going to ask him for advice and I was going to ask him where I could find a publisher to work for who wasn’t “an unrepentant and irrevocable asshole.”

I was also going to tell him, while I was at it, that he spoiled me forever with his good sense, his humor, his respect for writers and his kindness.

I didn’t though.

More’s the pity.

I got lucky back in the 1980s, and didn’t realize exactly how few and far between the “truly good uns” are. In the hit and miss world of independent publishing, good owners are a diminishing quantity. I found that out the hard way since leaving Interlake in 1992.

In a landscape speckled and spattered with hobbyists, carpetbaggers, ingenues and boors… I happened to luck into one of the best on my very first job.

A gentleman, a publisher and a gem.

RIP… Swervin’ Mervin Farmer.

You are missed.

Follow Gav on Twitter @terrancegavan.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]