By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
Bobby Sweet's back has been aching. So when he hefts a 50-pound sack of Old Warrior flour onto his shoulder, his gait becomes that of a sailor treading the slippery deck of a ship at sea. Stopping at a designated spot in the backroom of the bakery, he bends his knees and twists his torso in one motion, letting the weight slide through his arms to the floor. He then pulls a single thread from the top flap and opens the sack, releasing a small white cloud into the air. Flour settles on everything at the bakery. Sweet is no exception. His white shirt and trousers camouflage it, but his face is smudged with the stuff, his work boots dusted.
At a nearby table, Tim Rakel digs into a batch of chocolate-chip cookie dough with an ice-cream scoop and plops dollops onto a baking sheet. It's a methodical process: 15 cookies on a tray, 12 trays per rack. He keeps at it until the mound of brown dough has disappeared. The sheets are then placed in the oven, on racks that revolve like a Ferris wheel, for eight minutes. While the cookies are being prepared, Sweet adds flour, water and yeast to two steel kettles. Like the oven, the dough mixers are more than 50 years old. When their switches are flipped, they begin to hum and clang as their electric motors turn dough hooks as long as a man's arm. After the kneading, the 80-pound batches of bread dough are heaved up onto the tabletop and allowed to rise.
Sweet and Rakel are part of a renaissance in the age-old art of baking. Whole wheat and organic grains are more popular than ever, with restaurants offering fresh-baked items on their menus and specialty breads taking up more shelf space in supermarkets. Handmade loaves of rye and pumpernickel now fill the shelves once dominated by bland, mass-produced white bread. Factory-packaged products, hermetically sealed in multiple layers of plastic, are being replaced by real food. In this respect, Black Bear Bakery, at 2903 S. Jefferson Ave., is little different from other small bakeries competing for a niche in this burgeoning market. The baking process is much the same and the ingredients are similar -- but there are differences in the way the bread is made here.
Sweet and Rakel don't have a boss, and they don't punch a clock. Instead, management decisions and work schedules are made jointly by all eight employees, most of whom are anarchists. Their bread label may show a smiling bruin astride a bicycle, but the bakery's mission statement defines itself as an "anti-authoritarian, anti-ideological collective" that "challenges division-of-labor and capital-based hierarchical business." Aside from producing healthy, affordable food, one of the bakery's primary objectives is "to organize and embrace anarchic grassroots agitation, information and action."
It's 10:40 a.m. on Tuesday as Mark Bohnert swings the bakery's Ford Astro minivan into an alley off South Grand Avenue and stops at the rear of the Mangia Italiano restaurant. Poking his fist through the security grates, he knocks, and a kitchen helper opens the door. Bohnert carries in a load of bread and begins negotiating an overdue bill of more than $450, raising his voice to be heard over blaring hip-hop music. The cook calls the owner, who lives upstairs, but returns empty-handed. The owner is still asleep, he says -- come back later. There will be no payment today from this account.
Bohnert then drives down Grand to South Side National Bank, where he deposits the receipts he did collect on the morning delivery run. He climbs the marble stairs, stepping beneath an arch into a bank lobby that could pass for the set of a Depression-era heist movie. The place smells of money and possesses the traditional trappings of wealth: a shiny steel vault, an armed guard, high ceilings, ornate lamps, gilded tellers' cages and arched windows with cornices molded in the shape of birds of prey.
From his perspective, Bohnert has just invaded the heart of the predatory beast. Filling out the bank slips, making deposits and collecting unpaid debts are necessary compromises of his beliefs. He grudgingly admits to accepting the realities of the market economy, but he has no compunction about criticizing its failures.
"Things would be so different if we didn't have the profit motive," Bohnert says. "The whole system distorts our ideals. It forces us to make these sickening compromises." Bottom-line considerations have compelled the bakery to defer installation of more energy-efficient equipment and to use fewer organic ingredients because of their expense. For Bohnert, the bakery is a step in the right direction, but it's far from being a panacea. "It's not ideal," he says. "It's about making the best of our lives within the capitalist system."
As he's leaving the bank parking lot, almost as an afterthought, Bohnert mentions that the first bank robbers to employ a getaway car were French anarchists in the early part of the 20th century. The day-to-day running of the bakery may not be as romantic, but it is no less steeped in history.
When Black Bear first opened its doors, two-and-a-half years ago, it operated as the City of Little Bread. The name comes from the original title of Washington University labor historian David Burbank's 1957 book on the St. Louis general strike of 1877. During the strike, immigrants with socialistic and anarchistic leanings took over the city. After police quelled the upheaval, St. Louis businessmen reacted by organizing the Veiled Prophet parade as a means of recapturing the hearts and minds of the rebellious masses.
Before modern-day anarchists seized the means of production at Jefferson and Pestalozzi, the corner location was the site of Mayer's, a German-Austrian bakery. The family name still graces the outside of the building. John Mayer started working there in 1947 after immigrating to the United States. He bought the business in 1959 from Charles Koch, who opened the shop in 1909.
But the Black Bears didn't appropriate their lists of ingredients from Mayer or Koch. Instead, the bread recipes were acquired a few years ago from Lickhalter's, a once-famed Jewish bakery on the Near North Side. Black Bear still proudly credits Lickhalter's on its labels. It's hard to gauge how the late Jack Lickhalter would have felt about the association of his name with anarchists. Apparently he wasn't a friend of the proletariat. In 1964, the U.S. Labor Department sued Lickhalter for failure to comply with the terms of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The government accused the bakery owner of not paying his 23 employees the prevailing wage or compensating them for overtime.
As Bohnert drives by the St. Louis Super Market at Magnolia and Grand avenues, he passes a picket line. Bohnert keeps going. He has informed the management of the market that the bakery has suspended deliveries until the labor dispute is resolved. Although Bohnert supports organized labor, he also thinks unions can be pawns on a capitalist chessboard. For him, there can be no meaningful change unless the rules of the game are altered. "This entire society is based on the bosses telling employees what to do, white people telling black people what to do, straight people repressing gays and lesbians," he says. Bohnert's personal dialectic involves scrutinizing his biases and trying to overcome them. It's a full-time job of which the bakery is only a part. When Bohnert delivers bread to Global Foods in Kirkwood, he drops off copies of Confluence by the front door. The quarterly newsletter, which he founded seven years ago, covers environmental, political and labor issues. Its platform includes the slogan "We serve corporate heads on a platter. Join the feast."
Bohnert also publishes Passionate and Dangerous, an anarchist zine. He plans to establish a local independent media center and is exploring ways to secure low-cost housing in the city. Currently he lives in a collective on Ann Avenue with bakery comrades. The collective is one of three South Side communes where anarchists reside.
At 31, Bohnert sees his life as part of a common struggle, carrying the past with him on his delivery route as if the ghost of Emma Goldman, the famous American anarchist, were riding in the back of the van with the loaves of Vienna white. Driving down Kirkwood Road, he passes the local headquarters of Opus Dei, a right-wing Roman Catholic order that originated during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s. The recollection brings forth a torrent of admiration for the anarchists who battled the fascist forces of Francisco Franco. By the time he reaches Interstate 170, Bohnert is talking about the popularity of anarchy in America, before U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer orchestrated the notorious raids against suspected radicals in 1919-20.
Minutes later, when he arrives at Wild Oats Community Market on Ladue Road, history takes a backseat to the business at hand. Bohnert drives around to the rear and enters the giant natural-foods store by the back door, exchanging greetings with familiar workers as he pushes his bread cart through the swinging doors. In the short time it takes him to reach the bread aisle, he is an anonymous delivery man to the affluent customers passing by.
On a Thursday afternoon, six workers are huddled around a kitchen table in the small office between the front of the store and the baking area. They are wearing sweatshirts, with scarves wrapped around their necks and watch caps pulled low over their brows. When the oven is not in use, it can be cold inside the bakery in winter. Blue paint is peeling from the walls, which are decorated with concert posters, paper money from Iraq and a pamphlet for an anarchist conference in Vermont. The radical ephemera also includes a photograph of punk-rocker Jello Biafra wearing a T-shirt that says, "Nobody knows I'm a lesbian." Another illustration shows a smiling cop saying, "Hi, I'm going to kick your ass and get away with it." A postcard haphazardly taped to the wall reads, "Billionaires for Bush: Because Inequality Is Not Growing Fast Enough." All the signs and the scene itself suggest this is a meeting of an underground cabal -- except for the tray of chocolate-chip cookies sitting in the middle of the table.
Discussion centers not on terrorist campaigns against the World Trade Organization but the future of the bakery. The anarchists plot short- and long-term goals. They kick around the idea of giving themselves a $1-per-hour raise over the next year. They consider raising the wholesale and retail prices on cookies and bread. They talk about improving working conditions, providing themselves with medical insurance, even sprucing up the office. More than anything else, they are engaged in taking control of their own lives.
The aim of self-realization is spelled out in Black Bear's proposed vision statement: "This bakery does not manufacture leaders, bosses, experts, followers, employees, peons or grunts.... Everyone should expect to engage in some sales, organization, delivery, cleanup or other shit work on a regular basis.... Profits will be used to pay decent, competitive wages and benefits and to support, through cash or product donations, people who promote similar ideas. There is no pretense that selling loaves of bread ... will bring about the demise of authoritarian institutions or capital-based distribution of wealth. This not what is radical about a collective. [Collectives] are radical because the people who shape them share and develop skills...."
There is nothing pie-in-the-sky about the life choices of the bakery workers. Black Bear is not a dotcom start-up with speculative investors pounding on the door. Pay is low, $6-$8 per hour. Workers live communally. They barter for fresh vegetables with fellow vendors at Soulard Farmers Market. Bohnert rides a bicycle to work. Rakel walks. Collective members mainly come from middle-class, white suburban backgrounds. Sweet's father is a psychiatrist. His mother is a professor. Bohnert's brother is an accountant. His mother sells real estate. But for the bakery anarchists, life has become more elemental, like the rounding of a loaf of bread by hand.
The bakery makes 10 varieties, including its own organic recipes. Honey whole-wheat and Lickhalter rye are customer favorites. A wide selection of baked delicacies, such as its hazelnut chocolate bars, is available at the bakery's stall in Soulard Market every Saturday. The bakery itself is open from 3-7 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
Black Bear also sells its products to 14 commercial customers. Blueberry Hill in University City serves the bakery's French bread. Dominic's on the Hill and in Clayton serves Black Bear's pumpernickel.
"It's good bread," says Kirk Warner, the chef at King Louie's at Chouteau and 39th Street. Warner appreciates the quality and the service that the Black Bear bakers provides, but, even more, he admires their spirit: "What's really sold me is just how passionate they are about baking bread." Warner adds that he doesn't care what kind of political views the bakery espouses, "as long as the bread is good."
The front of the bakery, facing Jefferson, looks much as it did near the turn of the last century. The tin ceiling is bordered by a frieze depicting a bounty of corn and grapes. There is a row of bread shelves with sliding glass doors. Below the poppyseed buns, the anarchists display their lending library. The titles include America: What Went Wrong?by Donald Bartlett and James B. Steele; and Sacco and Vanzetti by Paul Avrich.
Meredith Cobb, the youngest member of the collective, is minding the store. She is a 17-year-old junior at Metro High School. "When you're doing something collectively, it means a lot more than just making money," she says. As for how her anarchist ties are perceived by her peers, Cobb says: "Depending on whom I talk to, they're either scared of me or think it's awesome."