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Yankees may have chuckled at the title, but the ladies and gentlemen of Garden & Gun just walked away with a National Magazine Award and are proving that a focused, glossy regional magazine can thrive in the iPad app era.
From its hometown of Charleston, S.C., Garden & Gun serves up a bimonthly magazine full of Southern hospitality that attracts a readership so avid that many of them pay an extra $500 a year just to be a part of its “secret society.” And what do said members receive? A weekend tote bag, a decal and, like an invitation to the lavish wedding of a distant but admired relative, the opportunity to spend another $5,000 to attend an annual weekend retreat with the magazine’s writers, editors and contributors at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee.
Manhattan-based readers might go for a reading or lecture, but the Garden & Gun following is more like a Vanderbilt class reunion, where they are deeply connected to each other, the South and Southern traditions. Even the name is connected to a more rarefied era: The magazine’s moniker comes from the old Garden & Gun nightclub in Charleston, a Southern-style Studio 54, filled with mix of louche characters and the old line, drinking gin and tonics.
“You knew it was the place to be without being able to pinpoint why,” said contributing editor Julia Reed. “The magazine captures that.” It has the kind of following that more iconic, longer running magazines that have been around a lot longer enjoy. “It’s a return to something we haven’t seen in a while: great literary writing and photography on high paper quality. These are things people are cutting back on.”
Since its first issue back in 2007 (it launched around the same time as ill-fated Condé Nast Portfolio), the title has developed a devoted following of Southerners, expats and those who appreciate the perfect mint julep, a new pecan pie recipe, deer and duck hunting in Mississippi and reading lots and lots of dog stories. Tom Brokaw recently wrote about what his two Labrador ladies, Sage and Abbie, taught him about “life, love and aging gracefully.”
It’s a regional publication to its very core but, in recent years, the magazine has also landed on the coffee tables of New York-based editors. Food & Wine editor in chief Dana Cowin is said to be a fan, along with Terry McDonell at Sports Illustrated, Nancy Gibbs from Time and New York Times food critic Sam Sifton. “I can’t remember whether it was my wife or Karl Rove who told me about it first. Now there’s a sentence,” said ex-Newsweek editor and current Random House executive editor Jon Meacham.
“It’s one of those magazines that initially has a novelty factor because of the name,” said Reed. “But it really does feel like a club. The writers all know each other. We have the same sensibilities and same passions. We have a lot in common with the other readers of the magazine.”
Reed writes often, about a range of topics, from how booze and religion should be friends, not enemies, to a city portrait of how Dallas is trying to be the next arts capital of the world to a profile of artist William Dunlap. “I’ve never written for a magazine in my embarrassingly long career where readers are so invested in it,” Reed said. “I wrote for Vogue for 20 years and the reader feedback was great. But that was how many millions of readers? I promise you, I get the same amount of feedback now from writing for Garden & Gun.”
Among those devoted to Garden & Gun is Rodale chairman and chief executive officer Maria Rodale. It’s not often that the head of a publishing company will write glowingly and often about a magazine not published by his or her company, but Rodale isn’t shy about sharing her affection for the title. A few years ago, she blogged (perhaps to the annoyance of her own titles Prevention and Organic Gardening) that Garden & Gun was her new “all-time favorite magazine.”
“When I heard about it at a magazine conference, I thought it was a joke,” Rodale wrote. “I picked up a copy just for fun and found myself completely and utterly hooked. It’s kind of a Southern lifestyle magazine. I’m not Southern, nor do I aspire to be. But they have gotten it right. They show me and tell me about stuff I would never think to look for myself.”