The Story of The Sphere, by Mike Koppa

Prelude to The Sphere

I grew up thinking work was fun.

My dad bought Farwell Foods on Milwaukee’s East Side from my Uncle Don in 1982. I was thirteen. As an eighth grader, living a completely different life way the heck over by Timmermann Field in the northwestern corner of Milwaukee, I would board the city bus on 92nd & Capitol Drive with my friend, Alvin, and ride it through the city to work at the store once a week after school. The world became noticeably different when we stepped off the bus on Oakland & Lafayette. The houses were bigger, and older, and closer together. The apartment buildings were taller. The streets were lined with parked cars, and there were people on the sidewalks. The people were different, too—they were adults but they weren’t somebody’s parents, or they didn’t look like they were, anyway. The clothing styles were different. And the air—that east side Lake Michigan air.

The experience of being a kid from an almost all white middle class Catholic-School-and-Cub-Scouts neighborhood, sitting on a city bus traveling straight through the heart of Milwaukee, watching the neighborhoods get progressively older, while the ridership transitioned from all-white to all-black (except for us two thirteen year-old boys) to all-white again, was fascinating and empowering. I appreciated having the opportunity to be familiar with a pretty comprehensive cross-section of Milwaukee. It made me feel worldly at a young age, and I think I saw my perspective as an advantage and an asset.

It was a short two-block walk from the bus stop to the corner of Farwell & Irving. When we walked in the door of the store, my dad handed us a giant stack of one-sided “handbills” to deliver door-to-door around the neighborhood. First we had to fold them all in half. I think the idea was that it made them tidier and easier to carry, and weighted them on one edge so they could be easily flipped inside every storm door, just like the paperboys did. They also made neat stacks in the apartment building lobbies.

My dad drew them with markers, by hand, on templates laid out by the graphic design shop next door. The handbills featured weekly specials, but mostly they were simple and regular reminders to people that the store was in their neighborhood. After the folding, our job was to peddle them, by hand (and foot), around a three-block radius of the store. Very strategic.

These are very, very fond memories.

The Sphere as a Snowball

The story of The Sphere begins ten years later. It is, maybe, a little ironic that I went away to college in pursuit of the skills that might lead to a career in graphic design, only to gain technical skills just shy of the cutting edge. That led to my first job as a Compugraphic typesetter, where I gained more of the same outdated skills, until I eventually quit—only to return to the store and revert back to the crudest expression of graphic design: hand drawn ad sheets with disposable markers, just like my dad did when I was a kid.

I was lucky to be able to go back to the grocery store, but even more fortunate that I was able to persuade my dad to let me manage it. It took a friend to point it out to me, but let there be no doubt: I was the coach’s son.

As silly as it was portrayed, I took the role seriously, and honestly felt like I could use my art degree to help my dad turn the proverbial corner at his grocery store. He had always wanted it to be busier, because he needed the store to make more money. I wanted it to be busier because if there’s one of the seven deadly sins with which I am afflicted, it is pride. I wanted the store to be popular. Or cool. I knew the east side was a hip place, and I wanted the store to be a part of that. It was a grocery store, after all, and it really could have been, or should have been, the one place everyone in the neighborhood would go.

We had a lot of fun at the store. And the fun we had was observed and ultimately shared by the customers, but the percentage of people in the neighborhood who knew what went on inside that store was pretty small. I made it my job to get the word out, and to give the store an image befitting its neighborhood. So I proposed we start making those handbills again, and that’s how I would put that art degree to work. I’d draw them up myself, and run them around the neighborhood just like we used to do when I was thirteen.

It didn’t take long before I realized I wasn’t thirteen, and my friend Alvin wasn’t running and jumping up and down steps with me. I also knew my time could be used more wisely working in the store. Beyond that, I did learn a few things in college: I had a new awareness of a thing called artist’s books, I liked eating delicious sandwiches on State Street, and I enjoyed flipping through the first few years of The Onion between classes. All of that could be put to work in a fun way at the store.

Then came The Sphere. I suggested to my dad that if we turned the handbills into multi-page books, they would become more interesting, and people would voluntarily pick them up in the store. As they got disseminated around the neighborhood, it would result in voluntary word-of-mouth advertising. It would give people something to talk about. I didn’t know it was going to work that way, but I thought it might. And it did. Lucky to be the coach’s son. I doubt if anyone else could have talked my dad into it, and likewise, I don’t know if I would have been able to talk anyone other than my own dad into it.

The first issue was a simple 8-pager: two sheets of legal size paper, printed 2-sided, on cream colored paper—making it a little more interesting than white, yet keeping the cost of production down to please my boss. No staples, just folded, and one sheet stuffed into the other. The pages were filled out with content contributed by employees/friends and customers, and it was billed as “the world’s first and only grocery fanzine.” Customers appreciated the effort, and all it took was for my dad to hear a little positive feedback from them to get fully behind it.

The first five issues were Volume I. These were published monthly, with dates.

I:1 = September 1993

I:2 = October

I:3 = November

I:4 = December

I:5 = January 1994

Worth noting is that giving them a volume number from the very beginning set an expectation for more to come, and the mast head note that they were available “only at Koppa’s…for now,” suggested there was a bigger picture in mind right from the start, even if it was yet to be determined. This all goes along with the classic marketing strategy that if you say what you have to offer is the greatest thing the world has ever seen, everyone will be curious to know what it is. It’s ubiquitous in grocery packaging, and it’s an easy way to get attention.

Volume II expanded in size and scope. The larger format allowed room for ads of other neighborhood businesses. By inviting other businesses to get on board, the idea of the store being the hub of the neighborhood started to play out. I saw it as strategic cooperation: the news of the store would be shared more widely throughout the neighborhood if other businesses would jump on board; and those businesses would benefit from being a part of The Sphere, which quickly became a subtle metaphor for the neighborhood. But maybe the bottom line was that I needed advertising revenue to help pay for the larger format. I suppose it was a chicken-or-egg situation. Issues also became available around town: Advertisers were offered a potato chip box modified to hold 25 copies of the zine, with a drop box for the new 25¢ price. We did actually collect some change from those boxes, but it wasn’t a lot, and eventually we bailed out on stocking those before Volume II ran its course.

Beginning with Volume II, issues were published every full moon (monthly) and dated with the name of the moon, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac:

II:1 = Snow = Feb 1994

II:2 = Worm = March

II:3 = Pink = April

II:4 = Flower = May

II:5 = Strawberry = June

II:6 = Buck = July

II:7 = Sturgeon = August 1994

…and then we rolled into the one-year anniversary with Volume III. This is when I decided the whole enterprise was a little too much work, and rather than sell ads, I would make it ad-free (except for the Koppa’s ads) and sell it for $2.50, which I justified as “comic book price.” The new cover price was supposed to make up for the lost ad revenue, but it never did. That didn’t matter to me, because, personally, the issues were becoming more interesting, even though the readership dropped off substantially. Only a few hard-core fans felt it was something worth $2.50. In fact, I recall a few people telling me I was getting a little too big for my britches and it was better when it was free.

III:1 = Harvest = September 1994

At this time the monthly cycle for publishing these full length issues became too much to continue, so I published “intermissions” while I worked on more sophisticated issues to follow, hence:

Intermission I = Hunter Moon = October 1994

Intermission 2 = Beaver Moon = November 1994

III:2 = Cold Moon = December 1994

…and now comes the unusual “A” edition of The Sphere, which wasn’t associated with a full moon at all. This was published as a one-off just to keep things interesting and/or generate interest. It was the only issue distributed by hand, and if I remember correctly, I walked from my apartment at 1811 Warren Street, off Brady, toward the new, recently opened Pick ‘n Save on Ogden, and slipped them under the windshield wipers of all the cars on the street, and maybe even a few in the Pick ‘n Save parking lot. This would have been around New Year’s Day, 1995.

Intermission 3 = Wolf Moon = January 1995

…and here’s where the wheels start to come off a little bit and I lose steam. I was also thinking I needed more time for each issue, as I continued to strive to make each issue more of a work of art—something between comic book and magazine. I decided to relax a bit and focus on that instead of pumping out monthly editions.

III:3 = Pink Moon = April 1995

…followed by the longest break of all and wrapping up with the last issue, which was the only issue laid out at the drawing table in the new studio suite on the 5th floor of what was then the Milwaukee Antique Center at 341 N. Milwaukee Street. By this time I had acquired a bunch of letterpress printing equipment (the dream come true), and I had to wrap up The Sphere before I could settle into what would come next: CRUX.

III:4 = Hunter Moon = October 1995

Heh. Yep. Better when it was free and when I was doing it all with passion and love of art and creativity, rather than trying to actually make it pay for itself, let alone pay me a dime for the effort of producing it. For some, maybe, but for me the final issue was undoubtedly the best. Good thing the store gained popularity during this time and my dad was still willing to help pay for the more expensive issues. I’m sure he doesn’t remember it this way, but that’s definitely one thing he did do to show support of my creative spirit.

From the beginning, the stage was set for The Sphere to grow to unknown bounds, and it most certainly did, before it hit the wall and disappeared. What an awesome trip down memory lane. It was a great experience and a great time in my life. I remember it all so dearly. Thank you for listening.

And thanks to UWM Libraries for digitizing it.

Mike

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