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Journalist Leeson brings merchant Fred Meyer's story to life

Sometimes the best questions are those that are so obvious that no one bothers to ask them.

Imagine this scenario: You are driving home from work. Halfway home you realize you have nothing for dinner. No problem. You pull off the street into the parking lot of a Fred Meyer store. You grab a shopping cart and fill it up with some eggs, cheese, milk and a box of cookies. While you’re at it, you figure you might as well pick up your prescription at the pharmacy. And on the way out, you grab a pair of socks.

In all that time do you ever stop to ask yourself: “Isn’t it great to pick up everything I need at once? I wonder if stores like this have always been around?” Do you ever think: “Hey, Fred Meyer isn’t just the name of a store. There was actually a guy NAMED Fred Meyer.” Do you ever stop to wonder who Fred Meyer actually was, or how he put his name on countless grocery/department stores around Oregon?

“MY-TE-FINE Merchant: Fred Meyer’s Retail Revolution” ($22.95 Irvington Press) by Fred Leeson asks and answers those questions.

Leeson is a Portland journalist and author. He worked for The Oregon Journal from 1972 to 1982 and the Oregonian from 1982 to 2007. In 1973, a 24-year-old Leeson spent an hour interviewing Meyer, who was then 87. In the About the Author section, Leeson says “Meyer displayed many of the traits reflected in this book.”

What are those traits? And who was Fred Meyer?

The biography opens up with a marvelous anecdote about Meyer meeting a panhandler near one of his stores on Southwest First Avenue. Leeson quickly conjures up the image of a very complex man. “The man who could berate his managers in closed-door meetings for hours at a time seldom showed that side of his personality outside his office.” Later in the chapter Leeson writes: “Wealthy as he was, the old man had never shown much of a charitable streak.” The anecdote concludes with Meyer giving the panhandler the three dollar bills that were in his wallet.

“Merchant” casts a critical and compassionate eye at Meyer’s life.

Meyer’s business practices could be brilliant. Anticipating the boom of automobiles, he built his stores where he thought freeways would go. The man with an elementary school education pioneered one-stop-shopping and gained a net worth of tens of millions of dollars.

Far too often, biographers fall in love with their subject. They glorify their successes and defend their failures. “Merchant” does not do this. It looks at Meyer’s life objectively and allows the reader to judge Meyer (who lived from 1886 to 1978) based on the facts they read.

If one has any doubt about the objectivity of the author for his subject, they need look only as far as the dedication, which reads: “In honor of those who worked for, endured and respected Fred G. Meyer, a brilliant and difficult man.”

“Merchant” reads very fast. Leeson spends a good amount of time telling the story himself rather than overly relying on quotes. However, his use of quotes are usually appropriate and add to the narrative.

Leeson names each of his chapters (“Behind the Bow Tie,” “Full Speed Toward 90,” “The Final Days of FGM,” for example). The chapter names are clever and appropriate.

The book has 30 black-and-white illustrations placed throughout. The use of art broke apart the text nicely and the captions were succinct and to the point.

Many biographies do not cite their sources. They tell the story and a reader is left to believe them, or disbelieve them based on their faith in the author. Leeson is meticulous about citing his sources, though. He includes footnote numbers in the text and at the end of each chapter he lists the sources, such as The Oregon Journal. In chapter six alone, there are 81 sources listed. This practice does little to slow the reader down. While it does not necessarily add to the reader’s enjoyment of the book, Leeson citing his sources gives the reader the comfort of knowing what they are reading has been verified.

There is also an eight-page index at the end of the book, which adds an air of cache to the quality of the biography.

The blessing and the curse of writing a biography is that the book is only as interesting as the life of the person the author is chronicling. And, often times, a biography is only interesting to those who care about the subject of the book. A biography of Elvis Presley will always matter more to an Elvis fan than a Britney Spears fan.

Good storytelling is the great equalizer, though. When a biography is crafted well, any man or woman can be interesting. Perhaps the shopper mentioned earlier does not care who Fred Meyer was. Or perhaps a quick Google search will suffice their curiosity. But, Fred Meyer’s story is worth knowing. And Leeson does a very good job telling it.

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