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How Joe Bought the Farm

Five years ago, Myopic Books owner Joe Judd thought he was going to die. When he didn’t, he decided to live the life he’d always wanted.

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For nearly a dozen years, Joe Judd was a fixture in Wicker Park. A wiry guy with a baseball cap practically glued to his head, he could often be found planting flowers around the neighborhood or hosting late-night chess tournaments at Myopic, the used-book store he opened in 1991. But that all changed one morning about five years ago, when Judd woke up to find that his left leg no longer fit in his pants.

He made an appointment with his doctor, who in turn referred him to Henry Baraniewski, a vascular surgeon at University of Illinois Medical Center. Baraniewski diagnosed the condition as Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a rare disorder in which blood vessels expand abnormally and cause malformations in the limbs. If left untreated the disease can lead to blood clots and, eventually, death.

"He said I was probably going to have to cut off my leg," Judd recalls. "I told him he couldn't because someday I was gonna own a farm and I wanted to ride a horse. And I felt if I didn't have a leg, I'd keep falling off the horse."

The alternative, Baraniewski explained, was a series of painful operations in which the arteries and veins in Judd's leg would be tied shut and burnt with alcohol injections. "His exact words were, 'Next year, you'll be living in hell,'" Judd says. "There was no other option for me. I saw him one more time; he explained the operations and that I had to get a living will and a will. I would be gone for like a year, and I had to get all my affairs in order."

Over the next year Judd underwent nine surgeries that left a pair of large indentations (he calls them "handles") in his leg. "They took huge burns that I have pictures of because I didn't think anybody would ever believe it," he says.

A former smoker, Judd picked up the habit again while he was in the hospital. The first time he went out for a cigarette he wore his winter jacket, not realizing until he stepped outside that spring had arrived. "I looked over and there was a tiny plant growing in this planter. It was the only thing growing." He dug it up, put it in a paper cup, and brought it back to his room. "I didn't care what kind of plant it was—I knew it was a weed," he says. "And I kept it next to me because it was this living thing, the only connection I had to what I'd hoped to do."

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As far back as he can remember, Judd has yearned to farm. "That's the whole reason I opened a bookstore," he says, "to get a bunch of books and have the capital to live on a farm." As a child he would hang out with his grandma while she tended the tomatoes and sunflowers in the garden of her home on Chicago's southwest side. He relished vacations at his great-grandmother's farm in Kentucky, where he pumped water with a hand pump and ran around in the cornfields. "No electricity, no running water, and I just loved that place," he says. "I always felt that connection."

A lifelong Chicagoan, Judd attended Eastern Illinois University in the mid-80s, but he studied psychology, not agriculture. "I really wanted to help people," he says. "I knew some people who had problems, and they seemed to work it out when they went and saw somebody. It was a remarkable thing." He landed a job as a mental-health counselor at Swedish Covenant in 1989 and moved to Ravenswood Hospital less than a year later. But by his second year on the job, after a couple of his patients committed suicide, he started to wonder if he should look into another line of work. "You have to accept that sometimes people aren't going to get better," he says. "I felt that I couldn't be a good therapist if I was always worried in the back of my mind that someone was going to kill themselves."

He saved up a few thousand dollars and started tacking up books wanted flyers around Wicker Park, where he lived. He headed out in his pickup some mornings at 7 AM to spend the entire day hitting garage sales and making house calls to check out people's collections. "I didn't know anything about running a bookstore—or books, except for the things I read," he says. He had one rule: only buy books you'd want to read yourself. "You might not want to buy a book—or need a book—about building a house, or you might not read too much lesbian fiction, but if you were going to, would that be the book you'd want?" he says. "If it's a topic you don't know anything about, you ask the person who brought the book in, 'What kind of stuff is this?'"

Within six months, he'd amassed 5,000 volumes. "I couldn't sit in my living room anymore," he says. Right around that time a small record shop and cafe called Earwax popped up in the neighborhood. "The day they opened, I walked in," Judd says. "They had problems with their landlord right away. I was looking for a bookstore and I was hesitant about how much money I could spend and whether I could do it. It seemed like a good idea to have a record store and bookstore together, maybe serve some coffee." Early in the summer of 1991, Judd and Earwax owner Nick Murray moved into a shared space at 1564 N. Milwaukee. Looking for a name that would relate to the eyes the way Earwax did to the ears, Judd decided to call his new business Myopic.

The arrangement lasted only a year. Murray wanted to expand the cafe, so Judd, who wasn't interested in running a restaurant, signed a lease on a storefront at 1339 N. Damen for $300 a month. "It seemed like a really reasonable price, except there was a crack house upstairs," he says. "It was sort of this notorious address. A crazy, nutty place."

Judd kept a midnight shift at Ravenswood Hospital for two years after Myopic opened. On nights he was scheduled to work, the store closed at ten. But if he had the day off, it would stay open until at least 1 AM, longer if he felt up to it. "These crazy taxi drivers who'd been up for days would come in when they found out we were open and want to use the bathroom," he says. Prostitutes regularly came in asking to use the phone.

Things got out of hand when two bikes—Judd's and a customer's—went missing from the sidewalk and turned up stashed on the upstairs balcony. Judd confronted one of the men who lived in the apartment, believing he'd stolen them. They got into a fistfight. "I punched him, we were wrestling on the ground, and people separated us," says Judd. "I thought, Oh my god, I can't believe I've just done this. This is the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life. They're just gonna kill me. I was so afraid I closed the bookstore early. The next day nobody came in for like an hour. I was hoping somebody would be there, in case I was murdered." Then the neighbor strolled in. "I thought, I'm dead. I can't believe I'm going to die over the bookstore," Judd says. "He said, 'Hey,' and I almost peed on myself. Then he said, 'I found out my brother did steal the bikes. I beat the shit out of my brother.'"

Judd and his neighbor sat down and forged a gentleman's agreement—as long as his neighbors didn't steal from him, Judd wouldn't call the police on them. Later, when a car crashed through the front of the bookstore after hours, "people from the crack house came down and made sure nobody stole anything until the police came."

Eventually Judd befriended five little kids who were living upstairs. One day he told them that sunflowers would grow if they planted seeds in the dirt by the sidewalk. They didn't believe him. "So I dug up the thing," he says. "They just did not think that this would ever work. But they watched everything—it's only a couple days and the stuff comes up. And they were so into it. They helped me build this tiny one-foot-tall fence around it, they helped me water it—they were fascinated by this thing. And eventually the sunflowers grew to about ten feet tall."

They planted sunflowers again the following year and corn the year after that, though someone later ripped out the cornstalks. "I came to the bookstore in the morning and these kids were just in tears," Judd says. "They couldn't understand why someone would do that when they were the ones that planted it. They thought everybody knew that—they told everyone. It was probably just a bunch of drunks who tore it out."

In 1996 Judd moved Myopic to a building at 1726 W. Division that came with an empty lot next door. "A whole lot!" he says. "I hated that building because it was one huge rectangle, but I wanted the garden." A building had been razed on the lot, so Judd planted flowers rather than vegetables, thinking lead levels in the soil might be too high for food. "Some of the roses that were in there I actually still have," he says. "Small yellow teacup roses." At night he planted flowers up and down Division. He says he tried to start a more formal beautification program through the Wicker Park chamber of commerce, but gave up because some business owners wanted to specify what he planted.

Myopic moved again in 2000, after Judd's landlady revoked his gardening privileges. (They had a falling out over a giant campaign sign she'd hung on the fence around the garden—Judd kept tearing it down.) The new location, at 1468 N. Milwaukee, didn't have any garden space, only a dark interior courtyard. Judd installed hanging baskets and grew vines and put out chairs so people could sit and read. "That's where I learned about shade gardening," he says.

Two years later Judd's health problems began. Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome is actually a disorder you're born with, but in Judd's case it took decades to manifest itself. For most of the next year he lived at the University of Illinois Medical Center. "I spent weeks and weeks in intensive care," he says. "I had to learn to walk again. And at one point I thought I was gonna die."

He left Myopic in the hands of his second in command, Adrienne Eaton. And as time passed, he thought long and hard about what he'd do if he recovered. "I was in the hospital when I turned 40," he says. "I didn't have that 40-year-old-guy freak-out. I was already freaking out."

From 1997 on, Judd had spent pretty much every vacation visiting friends in college towns like Athens, Georgia, and Asheville, North Carolina, so he could scope out the area farmland. "He'd been collecting books about farming for a long time," says Myopic manager Cat Behan. "He subscribed to the Small Farmer's Journal for many years." Myopic customers who knew about his love of gardening routinely dropped off tools at the store. "They'd give me things like an egg basket, a nozzle for a hose," Judd says. "While I was pretending to be a farmer, I was thinking, someday I'm gonna have this tool down there."

In June 2003, Judd's doctor told him he was in the clear. The next day he drove to Fayetteville, Arkansas, a place he'd fallen in love with while visiting a friend in grad school. Two weeks later he put in a bid on 113 acres in the township of Boston, about 50 miles west of Fayetteville. The farm, an inholding on a mountain in the Ozark National Forest, overlooked a magnificent valley. "I thought, Nobody else has a view like this," he says.

Judd closed on the property in December and slowly began the long process of moving down there. On his first trip he brought along his dog, a pair of overalls a friend had given him as a gag gift, and a notebook he planned to use as a farm journal. The land needed a lot of work before it would be ready for planting, but Judd already had livestock: the farm's previous owner had insisted he take a herd of 18 goats as part of the deal.

On his first night there, one of the goats went into labor and didn't seem to be faring too well. Judd called a local veterinarian, who told him to reach inside the animal and pull out the placenta. He wasn't up for it. "I picked up the goat—it was a pretty big goat—and threw it in the truck and drove to the vet," he says.

Back in Chicago, few people knew Judd had been released from the hospital, let alone that he was on a farm in the Ozarks. Behan says the staff didn't say much to customers about his absence.

"We tried to give the man some space and not really go into big details with every single person that walked in the door," she says. "When something like that happens, that's the last thing you need." On return trips to the city, Judd would sometimes bump into old acquaintances who were stunned to see him. "I've met people on the street who thought I was dead," he says. "They heard I was sick and then they didn't see me for a while."

Myopic moved again in 2004, back to its original location at 1564 N. Milwaukee, where it remains to this day. Moving the inventory of 80,000 books took three weeks, but having already moved three times, Judd knew the routine. "The only thing I really know how to do is move a bookstore," he says. The staff not only moved all the books, they poured the floor in the basement, which took 147 bags of concrete. "I think they refer to it as 'the thing we will never speak about again,'" Judd says.

Judd turned the building's roof into a garden, preparing six or seven raised beds. He'd been reading A Book of Bees, Sue Hubbell's detailed, instructive memoir of keeping 300 hives of bees in the Ozarks, and was so enthralled by her account that he signed up for beekeeping classes at Garfield Park Conservatory. "I had read you could keep bees anywhere," he says. "There were no rules about it. I figured 'Well, I'll just stick 'em on the roof of the bookstore.'"

He bought a starter kit—a queen bee and her colony of about 3,000—from a mail-order place. They arrived in a buzzing box about the size of a coffee table with mesh on two sides. "The Wicker Park post office called up and said, 'Oh, you have a package here,'" he says. "I was like, 'Oh, great, I'll come by after work.' They're like, 'You have to get it now.'" He carried the box home on foot and hauled it up the back of the building from the roof with a rope.

For the first two years he owned the farm, Judd split his time evenly between Arkansas and Chicago. His neighbors in Boston township saw him as something of a mystery. "They used to joke that I was a hit man," he says. "They couldn't figure out what I did. I'd farm for a couple weeks, then come back to Chicago. People at the general store started kidding me about it."

One of Judd's neighbors there, Vicki Evans, says the locals initially lumped him in with the hippies and "foreigners" who had migrated to Arkansas to live off the land and do crafts. "Most of them took a wait-and-see attitude about what he might do. You have to understand, we're a little community. A lot of us are pretty close-knit. Most families have been here since the early 1900s."

Judd's first project on the farm was to build a fence to keep the animals on the land but away from his gardens. He also worked on irrigating the pasture, which had been fallow for years, and building up the soil. He started out cultivating a variety of crops—corn, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic—on 1,000 square feet. "That was huge because I'd just been gardening by the sidewalk," he says. To supplement his knowledge, he took master gardening classes in Fayetteville and leaned heavily on his personal library. "All the stuff I built on the farm generally came out of the books I have," he says. "I have a big collection of books on building greenhouses that worked out great."

His foibles kept the neighbors amused. "The one thing that kind of got me and my husband," says Evans, "we went over there one day to fish, walked back to the house, and there were a bunch of little chickens in the house. I asked him what he was doing with chickens in the house. He said he had nowhere to put them. These half-grown chickens! He got them on out and had a chicken pen built for them."

The goats have been a handful. One night Judd accidentally left a gate open and the goats ate his entire watermelon crop. Another time they tore through a fence and got into a bunch of pumpkins Judd had planned on bringing back to Chicago to sell in front of Myopic for Halloween. "They ate every single pumpkin," he says. "They were burping, too. They saw me and their heads went up and there was this huge belch."

Judd speaks more fondly of his Jacob sheep, an heirloom breed with curving horns that can grow to more than two feet long. A single sheep, male or female, can have two, four, or even six horns. Their variegated fleece—white with lilac, ginger, or black spots—is popular with weavers and handspinners. "They sort of look ridiculous," he says. "Supposedly, though I don't think it's true, they're the sheep from the Bible." He bought them from the only Jacob breeder in Arkansas, about 40 miles away from the farm. "I started out with three—now there's eight," says Judd. "They're super sweet. They're needier than the goats but they're nicer—though you can't get too close because of those horns. One of them follows me around like a dog."

In December 2006 Judd married Lisa Westerberg, who'd moved to the Ozarks with her husband and her daughter, Hannah, in 1999. Since divorced, she was working at a local nursery. Evans introduced them, thinking they'd be perfect for each other. "I know Joe said if he couldn't find somebody to marry pretty soon, he'd just go back to Chicago," she says. "I said, 'You can't do that. You're too good a neighbor to lose.' I thought her and Joe would get along pretty good. Joe's ten years older than Lisa, but that ain't nothin'."

Lisa has taken over the herb garden and the farm's decorative plants , both of which have helped boost the farm's profitability. "Last year I just went to the farmers' market with vegetables," Judd says. "This year I went with starts. I had the potted plants, the cut flowers. We went to the meeting for the master gardeners and I noticed people had these clear vases and they put things in them along with some water, some vinegar, and a little bit of sugar. But it was things like elderberries or cayenne peppers. It never dawned on me. So we did that a couple times, brought that to the farmers' market, and people bought 'em all."

Initially Judd expected he'd have to sell a lot of his organic produce over the Internet or at farmers' markets in Chicago, but so far he's been able to unload everything at the market in Huntsville, Arkansas. The key, he says, has been the diversity of his harvest. "If I was only counting on one thing, like the vegetables, it would be very difficult," he says. "But I grow vegetables, I have fruit trees, I have sheep, I grow flowers, I have potted plants." By next year he expects to have 40,000 square feet of crops and to be able to live entirely off the land. "There's a certain point I'll have to start getting a lot of help," Judd says. "But I'll stop expanding it when I don't sell food. As it is now, everything we don't eat we sell."

Judd's business philosophy is much the same as it was when he started Myopic: start out small and stick to your guns. "You know, anything that people have done for thousands of years, you can do," he says. "It doesn't mean you can do it well, but you can do it. You can do pottery, you can draw, you can speak, read. Farming is the same way. There's a sense that the mere fact that you are a human being, the legacy of all that's come before you is continued in that. It's like having a baby. When you don't have a baby and you're single, you think, What am I going to do? Am I going to be a good parent? You know, there's eight billion people on the planet. You can do it."

Though he still keeps an apartment above Myopic, Judd has been back to Chicago only three times in the past year, and those visits were brief. His neighbors in Arkansas no longer seem bewildered by him; instead of calling him a hippie or a hit man, they refer to him as Chicago Joe. "If you've got a nickname, generally it means that people accept you," Evans says. "Where you come from is what you get called. The man who had [Judd's] land before, he had goats, so he was the Goat Man from Louisiana."

Judd has even made progress in his relationship with the local goats. He recently rescued a pregnant one he found wandering down the middle of a road. The next day it went into labor in his barn. "Of course I'm the only one there," he says. But this time he knew what to do. "She had some trouble—I had to reach in and pull one out, pull the sac out and revive it. She had twins."

As he delivered the kids, he heard a car pull up. It was Lisa with Hannah and a bunch of Hannah's friends. "I'm excited because finally somebody can experience this," Judd says. "And these goats are just minutes old. So all of us got together and we held the mother goat and then trained these goats to put their face by the nipple and start sucking."

Then another car pulled up—the people who lost the goat. They'd seen a sign Judd posted in the general store. "And I was like, well, now you're missing three goats. Little baby goats. These tiny little things—they look like stuffed animals. So the people take the goats and they go away and Lisa and all the kids they go out picking blackberries. And there I am in this barn—I'm all by myself, and it's almost like it never happened. It's almost like this whole thing never happened, this incredible moment. Luckily, I got pictures."   v

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