Updated: Sep 11
Moorhead's Prairie Bricks Lego hobby store had a bad day on social media and find themselves facing a wave of criticism and scrutiny.
This story has captured my attention in a way that I was never expecting. I mean, sure, I need something to fill the time until we get another update on that deadly beef Wellington murder case from Australia, but I never expected it to be a brewing controversy right down the road in Moorhead.
I'm going to link the story that Valley News Live did HERE, and we'll talk about the issues I have with their coverage a little later, but long story short there is a young man with disabilities who was banned, along with his mother, from his favorite store after a comment exchange between his mother and the "CEO" of Prairie Bricks (more on that later as well). The woman who was banned or someone close to her contacted KVLY's Whistleblower Hotline to share the story.
I heard about this because a friend on Facebook made a light-hearted post about one of the quotes in the article being kind of odd but fun: the owner of the store, Zachary Nienas, was talking about a new "no bags" policy at the store and said, "Like a wise knight does, he will raise his shield before he gets hit by the sword.” I'm a bit of a nerd, and that quote did kind of tickle my DnD-loving funnybone, so I went into this whole situation thinking that it had to be some sort of colossal miscommunication, some textbook example of internet communication gone wrong when you have to contend with words without tone or subtext or meaningful gestures.
I was wrong, and the deeper you look, the worse it gets.
First off, let's start with the issues with the Valley News Live Reporting. I will say going into this that I already have a pretty negative view on the quality of their reporting and I set my expectations for their coverage very low, but they still managed to limbo right under the bar. Here are my issues:
-It was based on someone else's Facebook comment, but VNL used in their headline the phrase "special needs boy." Tyler Peralta, the subject of the story, is 19 years old. He is a young man, and this language is infantilizing and disrespectful.
-They refer to an exchange between Tyler's mother, Maria Peralta, and the store's "social media representative." What they fail to mention is that the person was not commenting through the store's profile, but through her own profile, and she is Tammy Baumgartner Nienas, Zachary's mother who refers to herself on her own Facebook page as the CEO of Prairie Bricks.
-After social media ran with the story and the store started getting review bombed, VNL reached out to the Nienas family for an update, but didn't mention reaching out to the Peralta family or include anything about them in the update. Instead, they updated the story with a quote from Zachary saying, "If I could do anything I would give him a hug and cry on his shoulders. I’m sorry you’re going through this. Let’s get this resolved.” As if it wasn't Zachary's own mother who put Tyler "through this." They gave him the opportunity to play the victim (you certainly don't need to weaponize your tears against someone you've already injured, sir) without getting any sort of update from the Peralta family about how this has affected them or how they feel about the store's gestures up to that point.
This is probably a good time to pause for a minute and say that in this article I'm going to present all of the information that I've gathered as accurately as possible with screenshots and all that jazz. Having said that, I'm not 20/20 bitch! I have some strong feelings about this situation and what I've found in my research. Plus, on this page we sometimes use strong language. If some snarky humor and the occasional adult word is going to bother you, then I hope you go and do some digging, and find out for yourself why I think no one should shop from Prairie Bricks and their small-minded, problematic owners. We good here?
So let's start with the initial exchange that lead to the ban. In a world of Karens gone wild, it would be easy to assume that this blew up because Maria Peralta responded to the bag ban in a disrespectful way. Not true. Here is Maria's response to the announcement of the bag ban (which has since been deleted - ol' Tam Tam is a "tweet and delete" queen, so I'm going to be including screenshots of lots of posts that have been removed. Sorry Tam Tam, the internet is forever!):
In her response, she starts by saying that she can understand the decision and that she also understands that this was probably a difficult decision to make. Then she raises her concern that, as a customer, she doesn't feel safe leaving her items in her car and that it makes shopping at the store less accessible. That's not a threat, it's not an accusation, it's just a factual statement.
If anything, Maria's comments read like someone who is selecting their language to make their point without being confrontational. After the "social media representative"/CEO/Momager responds curtly with "Clear bag," Maria responds that she understood and that she doesn't feel like she should have to buy a new purse just to patronize a store. That's how she feels, and she stated it as a feeling, not as fact, and follows it up by saying that she still understands the store's decision. Ol' Tam Tam responds with another curt reply of "perfect!"
The next part of the conversation seems to be where things soured, and one of the things that has gotten lost in a lot of the commentary around this is that the store didn't ban Maria and her son because of anything to do with his disabilities. I know that seems like splitting hairs and I promise I'm not making excuses for them, but I think that if you're going to be mad at someone, you should be mad at them for something they actually did, not for something you heard they did from someone else who read it on a forum who...you know what I mean? And don't worry - as we go through this, there is plenty to be mad about!
But what seems to have gotten Ol' Tam Tam to run fully off the rails was money. More specifically, money that Maria spends at Prairie Bricks' online competitors.
After the exchange we talked about, someone else jumps into the convo, and replies to Maria with "Ebay." Maria then replies back to him saying, "yep we buy lots of Legos on eBay and Amazon" with three heart emojis. Now, as a random human encountering this conversation, here's how I read this:
Everyone fucking knows about Amazon and Ebay. If I were having this conversation, this comment would annoy the shit out of me - do you really think this woman has never heard of Ebay? Do you think you are actually adding something of value? I would have had some snarky reply. But Maria, clearly a much better person than I am, once again takes the non-confrontational route and just acknowledges that she knows of other places to buy Legos, and has purchased from them in the past, and even adds heart emojis to make it clear that she's not being snotty or rude (to what I still think is a monumentally stupid comment).
She didn't say she was ONLY going to buy from Ebay or Amazon. She didn't tell other people that they should go to Ebay or Amazon instead of shopping at Prairie Bricks. She didn't say anything that indicated she was going to reduce or stop her patronage at Prairie Bricks. All she did was acknowledge a comment.
That was apparently too much for Ol' Tam Tam, because that's when the infamous ban happens.
It starts with just a snarky comment at first, saying that, "you and Tyler can enjoy ebay now." Then a few hours later there is a comment criticizing Maria from Steven J Agnew (more on him later) and then Tam Tam drops the ban. The language that caught me, and that caused me to tumble all the way down this rabbit hole, is that the reason for the ban is because of damage that Tam Tam claims Maria is causing, "by not deleting your post of defiance."
There was something about that phrasing that just sort of smacked of Christian fundamentalism, and I wanted to know more; not just about this particular situation but about who these people were.
But first, the discussion of the ban starts to heat up. After Tam Tam posts about the "post of definance," Tyler's aunt Lisa Peralta Sullivan enters the conversation.
Lisa asks for clarification on why her nephew would be banned and defends her sister's post. My reading of Lisa's post is also that it's non-confrontational, she's just pointing out that Tyler loves the store and that Maria said nothing negative (which I agree with, looking at the earlier conversation). Ol' Tam Tam, however, is clearly big mad because she responds with a curt "not your problem" and excessive punctuation.
This does not go over well.
Lisa's response is definitely more forceful than anything we've seen so far, but it's still not in any way rude or unfair. She is direct, and she is stating the consequences of the situation for her nephew, who is not even one of the parties involved in this online altercation.
I'm sure Ol' Tam Tam is filled with good Christian charity and will understand that an innocent young man is being unfairly punished in this situation, right?
Yikes. This has very strong 80s parent "I'll give you something to cry about!" energy. And this is all coming from the store's "social media representative" and self-labeled CEO.
So all of this happened before I saw my friend's post and got interested in the drama. By the time I heard about it and looked up the Prairie Bricks page, this was the most recent post on the page:
I hadn't seen the VNL story yet, and I didn't even know if this was related to the drama. There's no apology here, so even though I knew something had gone down, I didn't know if this was related or if it was maybe part of a giveaway promotion or something. The first thing that clued me in, which I captured here in my screenshot, is that Prairie Bricks had limited who can comment on the post. This becomes a theme as this continues to develop: not only is Ol' Tam Tam a tweet and delete queen (this post also got deleted, suspiciously close to the time of the VNL update saying that they wouldn't disclose how much the gift card was for), she also deletes comments and bans people who express any criticism of the business. I've had over a dozen people comment on my post or message me to say that they have been blocked by Prairie Bricks in the last 24 hours, one just for liking someone else's negative review!
And the negative reviews are coming in fast and furious. Here are a few that I captured:
I included this screenshot, because I do think it's important to note the way that these types of stories can twist and turn as they grow. The second review refers to Tyler as a "special needs kid" which isn't respectful language for a 19-year-old young adult with disabilities. However, I don't for a second fault that reviewer because that is the exact language that VNL used in their reporting. This is why people say, "Words matter."
There are also some reviews that incorrectly say that the store banned someone with autism. That's not accurate; if Tyler is autistic, that was not part of the conversation that lead to the ban or the news coverage, and whether he is or not is not relevant to the argument between Maria and Tammy. But that's exactly why I always like to dig in and do a little research in situations like this. Again, be mad at someone for what they've actually done, not for something you heard they may have done.
As I was looking at the reviews (which have tanked the store's overall star rating on Facebook - 1.6 stars with 213 reviews as of this writing), I noticed that there were some supporters jumping into the fray. Whether they were asked to do so or just decided to counter the negativity isn't something we can know, but the timing is suspect.
I had to capture this because that comment made me cackle. And that was something from the main page that continued over to the reviews: either the reviewer would lock down who could comment on their review (the same way Prairie Bricks locked down their comment sections) or there would be critical responses - like this gem!
There were two reviews by people with the same last name. Remember how I said we'd get back to Stephen J Agnew. Yep, here we are. Let's start with the post by Jenn Agnew.
I went to check out what was available publicly on Jenn's profile. I didn't search very hard, but I didn't see anything of much concern, and she shared a meme of a minivan called Vanny Devito that I thought was clever in a dad joke sort of way.
C'mon that's funny!
Stephen's online profile is...less funny. First, here's his review, where he refers to Zachary and Ol' Tam Tam as "great people" and a "peace loving group."
Then he says, "I truly believe that they did not ban a disabled person from coming into their store." Well, all you have to do is scroll up a bit and you will see that Ol' Tam Tam clearly named Tyler in her comments about the ban. So believe it or not, it happened.
But Stephen seems to have a problem with belief. He also doesn't believe in science or common sense public health policy.
This is obviously a still of the post, but it's a pretty standard Faux News type anti-vax, anti-Biden meme/video.
He also doesn't believe in accurate portrayals of history.
This post is typical, misleading Candace Owens type bullshit. This post erases every bit of context around the actions of some Democrats at that time and some Republicans at that time, and also tries to ignore that the Democratic and Republican parties of that time look nothing like the Republican and Democratic parties of today. Republicans are struggling to attract black voters, and are losing elections because of black voters, so in addition to gerrymandering and other forms of voter suppression, they are also working on a clever spin on history to try reverse the tide.
Sorry, didn't mean to get distracted, but I just couldn't post that claptrap without giving some much needed context to explain why it's not the flex that Stephen seems to think it is.
Anyway, we've talked about what Stephen doesn't believe in, but let's add a little bit of what he does believe in. Like blatant racism that claims that descendants of Union soldiers deserve reparations from the descendants of freed slaves.
Oh, and he also believes in toxic masculinity and thinly veiled homophobia.
So...that's a lot.
And this is someone who is describing the owners of Prairie Bricks as great people. Gee, I bet he would even trust them to, I don't know, make America great again!
Sorry, got distracted again. Anyway, with this fine citizen acting as a champion for the beleaguered brick-sellers, I decided to poke around on their public profiles a bit to see what they were putting out into the world. Let's start with Ol' Tam Tam, since she's the one who started this whole mess.
In terms of her profile, there's not a lot to share. She either doesn't post much, or she's at least smart enough to keep most of her posts restricted to friends. The only thing she's really showing off, except for her fancy title as CEO of Prairie Bricks are a series of annual family Christmas cards.
If I can pause the Nancy Drew-ing for a moment of sheer pettiness, I'm just going to say it: I find these sorts of posed, matchy-matchy outfit family portraits creepy. You do you, Tam Tam, but this feels like something I would see in a cult documentary or right before the story turns on an episode of Snapped. And if you aren't creeped out by this, it might be because you are just seeing this one. There is a whole series of them for multiple years. Again, that's just me being a bitch, but sometimes you have to say the truth that's on your heart. Back to the serious stuff.
Zachary is less guarded about his posts to the public - at least he was. He seems to be taking a page from his mother's playbook and going back to remove some of the more questionable posts. But again, the internet is forever.
A lot of the more recent posts are Lego-related, or media stories related to his business. I'm the last person to shame someone for some self-promotion! But in the most recent content purge there was still this thinly-veiled anti-Biden meme.
"But Miss Jaye! Aren't you just turning this into a partisan thing? Maybe you just don't like him because he's more conservative than you!" says...well, probably no one who actually made it this far on my page! If you did, I'll give you credit for sticking with it!
No, that meme isn't really my biggest concern. I'm more concerned with the thinly-veiled racism and homophobia.
It's weird that he mentioned Stranger Things, though. I mean...has he watched Stranger Things? There are black people in it. Several. And queer people. It's not the most thought through post, but the intention of this meme is clear: adapting works in ways that make them more accessible and representative of more of the audience without impacting the story is somehow bad. Oh, those poor straight white people, how will they develop any sense of self-worth or self-esteem if they aren't constantly flooded with images of white people in media and culture?!
Maybe ask a black person? Because they've been finding ways to do that with inadequate representation since tv and movies have existed, so...
And in case this wasn't clear enough on the homophobia for you, we have another prime example which, frankly, still kind of confuses me? Let's start by looking at just part of a meme that Zachary posted.
If this was the whole post...I kind of agree with this? I'm old, so I remember the days when companies wouldn't even acknowledge LGBTQ+ people or deign to put a rainbow on anything, so I'm not completely against some forms of Rainbow Capitalism. But this section of the meme gets at the problem in so much of Rainbow Capitalism: put your money where your mouth is! If you're going to make money by slapping rainbows on shit, then you had better be able to show how you're actually supporting LGBTQ+ people as well. Same with churches and their free hugs bullshit, but that's not relevant to this situation and it's a rant for another day!
These two panels would be an appropriate response to a company like Bud Light, who wanted to cash in on using a trans person to try to open up new markets, but didn't support her when there was backlash. In fact, I know that certain groups of people think that was some sort of victory over "wokeness" (ANOTHER rant for another time) but I've seen articles that suggest that Bud Light may have bigger longterm consequences for their shitty response to the boycott than the boycott itself. I mean, it was only 4 months later when Kid Rock was photographed with a Bud Light in his hand, so...
But the meme that Zachary posted isn't just two panels. It's three. And in fact, his caption explicitly says, "You're going to want to read all three panels."
With the third panel, the joke turns. We're not calling out rainbow capitalism, we're criticizing queer folks for getting "manipulated" by "cheap ideologies." And he clearly says to make sure you read all three panels. Wouldn't want anyone to think he actually cared about the negative effects of Rainbow Capitalism on queer folks. I mean, "survival of the strongest," right?!
There was also this meme, which isn't Proud Boys-level homophobia, but he's reposting a meme referring to "gay month" and the caption suggests the he thinks companies acknowledging Pride "makes him laugh." And he doesn't do anything to address to more blatant homophobia that showed up in the comments.
Alright, I've traced out the information I've gathered with minor commentary. Now we're going full commentary, so you know what you're getting.
At this point, I'm just tired. I went into this thinking I would find an over-dramatized reaction to a simple miscommunication on Facebook, and instead I get yet another reminder that human beings can be really shitty. Zachary and Momager Tam Tam are scrambling to do damage control to save their business...but is it worth saving? I don't have children and I don't collect Lego, so I don't have much skin in the game, but I would never buy from a store that treated customers - paying customers who clearly LOVE this store - as badly as Maria and Tyler and their family have been treated.
Besides that, Tam Tam's comments and tone on Facebook are snarky and rude and arrogant. And I'm not saying she's not allowed to act like that, but I am saying that actions have consequences. If you behave like that and get called out on it, well, that's life. Just because you want to run a business doesn't mean that you are entitled to customers.
Hey, maybe Tam Tam had a bad day, right? Maybe this was just something that happened once, it was a blip, and she's really sorry. Well, first there is the fact that she has not apologized publicly (or from my admittedly limited understanding, privately) or addressed the situation herself - which she should do as she made the comments from her personal account, not the store's account. The store has made a new post about the situation (we'll see how long this one stays up):
Remember, y'all: words matter. "We feel incredibly sorry..." Who does? For what? This isn't taking accountability, this is taking cover. If I were helping them navigate through this, I would tell them that Tammy should make a sincere and clear apology, acknowledging what she did and the harm that it has caused, and then she should fuck off for a while. She must not watch Beauty YouTube, or she'd have already pulled out the gray hoodie!
The language in this post is more of the "crying on his shoulder" bullshit, subtly trying to set them up as the victims in this situation. After all, they are struggling! They just want to make amends!
And as often happens with something like this, as this story grows, other people speak up to share their negative experiences.
So...they have a dress code? She was wearing a Playboy sweatshirt, it's not like she was posing for Playboy with her nip-nops out. I'm not going to wade into the shark-infested waters of debating what is or is not "family-friendly," but I have yet to see any credible research showing that children can be harmed by a logo on a shirt.
And then we have this little gem:
I'm not going to debate the facts of the situation, but the tone of the response is not something I would want to be associated with. Maybe their security includes audio, or maybe Ol' Tam Tam smelled tobacco through the footage somehow, but she and her staff have choices to make in terms of how they speak to customers. When Lisa King left a review saying that she didn't like how she was treated, they responded by belittling her further.
And that seems to be a pattern:
This response review after Lisa King's review is just as snarky. That ending, "best of luck to you on selling it yellowed to someone else" is on par with "you and Tyler can enjoy Ebay."
So these are from Google reviews, and it doesn't show the name of the person responding (just that it's coming from the owner of the business), but it tells me that either Ol' Tam Tam is just a loudmouth bitch and this is how she talks to everyone, or it tells me that this is how everyone at the store talks to people. Pick your poison, I guess?
What feels the worst to me is that in so much of this debate, Tyler gets lost. This whole situation is about someone who had a safe, happy place taken away because of an altercation between two people that had nothing to do with him. As someone who has some recent experiences with losing a feeling of safety (re: death threats over drag shows), that sucks and it's not right, and even if Ol' Tam Tam and Zachary try to make it right, the damage was done. And I think there should be consequences for that.
Yes, I'm including this quote twice. This is something I feel very strongly about. If you want people to say nice things, then do nice things for them to talk about. You aren't entitled to a glow-y retelling of a story in which you were the villain. You aren't entitled to customers just because you want to have a business. Actions have consequences. Or put another way, "Whatever a man sows, this he will also reap." (Galatians 6:7)
Ugh, I've quoted the Bible so it's definitely time to finish this off and get the hell outta here. I'm not going to tell people what to do with their money, and I know that supporting small business is important for a lot of us (myself included!), but life is complicated and you don't have to feel pressured to support small businesses if it also means supporting small minds that espouse and allow racism, homophobia, and more on their public profiles. Even if you don't shop online at the big retailers, there are lots of small businesses that sell online. If you still choose to shop there, that's fine. I'm also not a fan of people who use consumerism as their moral barometer, and even less a fan of people who do so and base their judgments on one or two purchases.
So you do you. But for me, I won't be doing what I do anywhere near Prairie Bricks.
A couple of notes.
First, most of the screenshots in this post were taken by me; a few were posted in my comments by others. All of the posts shown were open to the public at the time that screenshots were taken; nothing was screenshotted from a private or restricted post. A lot of these posts/comments have since been deleted, but they were public at the time. If you don't stand behind something you posted, then you shouldn't have posted it in the first place. If you do stand behind it, don't delete it to avoid accountability.
Some people are going to take issue with me referring to Tammy throughout as Ol' Tam Tam. This is pure snark, yes, and doesn't serve a purpose. But another truism that I hear lobbed around by Christians quite often is to "treat others the way you want to be treated." If we look at how Tammy responds to her loyal, paying customers, then it seems that the way she wants to be treated is disrespectfully. You can say that this detracts from my arguments here, but there is a lot of factual information here that has nothing to do with my attitude. And if you're more interested in my attitude than those facts, then that's your thing, it's not about me, and you can die mad about it. Stay blessed.