A magazine grows in Charleston: Garden & Gun defies odds, hits its stride

David DiBenedetto, vice president and editor in chief of Garden & Gun magazine

From its beginnings in a kindergarten classroom through a financial crisis that nearly wiped out the business to a resurgence that has it moving to splashy new digs, Garden & Gun magazine has managed to stay true to its “soul of the South” tag line while garnering new readership and critical acclaim.

It might seem to be an unlikely success story in the cutthroat publishing world — a national lifestyle magazine based in Charleston that targets the genteel, upper crust of Southern society. Garden & Gun is a place where readers can get advice on the proper libations to serve during a fox hunt while perusing advertisements for Rolex watches and handcrafted oyster knives that cost $500 apiece.

It’s also one of the few places where readers still can find an essay proclaiming the virtues of the lowly mullet — the fish, not the hairstyle — by American author Roy Blount Jr. or get lost in long-form storytelling by some of the South’s best writers, such as Pat Conroy and Rick Bragg.

“It’s one of only a tiny number of literary magazines in the South,” said Bragg, who has contributed stories about coon dogs, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Gulf Coast oil spill. “Garden & Gun provides for me a place to write these long pieces about the South that I think are important. The outlet for those stories are precious, and we can’t afford to lose any of them.”

The publishing industry has recognized Garden & Gun with numerous awards, including general excellence honors for 2011 and 2014.

Many readers, turned off by the trend toward short attention spans and dumbed down prose in the age of Facebook, look forward to the magazine’s arrival every other month.

“Garden & Gun is a fine, well-edited magazine that captures the spirit of the historic South and modern South of the 21st century,” said Kenneth Buhmeyer, a subscriber since the magazine’s early days.

Buhmeyer, a Yankee who moved to Charleston in 1970 and then headed to Georgia after retiring from the Medical University of South Carolina, said the magazine reflects his interests — cuisine, cooking, gardens, the Lowcountry culture, mustard barbecue sauce, grits, marsh life ... the list goes on.

“Garden & Gun surely characterizes the elegant present and envious future of Charleston and the new South,” Buhmeyer said.

Garden & Gun essentially was born out of chance.

Rebecca Darwin, a native South Carolinian, had built an impressive career in New York as the publisher of magazines such as Mirabella and The New Yorker when her husband, Cress, heeded the call to attend seminary. That religious journey led the couple to Charleston in 2004 when Darwin’s husband became pastor of Second Presbyterian Church on Meeting Street — one of the city’s oldest congregations founded more than 200 years ago by English, Irish, Scottish, French Huguenots and independent Presbyterians.

A descendant of those Huguenots, Pierre Manigault, had daughters in the same Second Presbyterian preschool that Darwin’s children attended. Darwin and Manigault, who is chairman of Evening Post Industries, which owns and publishes The Post and Courier, became friends through that connection. Manigault soon approached the former publisher with a job offer.

“The newspaper was doing a magazine called Lowcountry Living at that point, and so Pierre begged me to come and take my magazine expertise and see if I could help out with that,” Darwin said. “I took a look at that and decided that maybe the better alternative was to start a separate magazine division. So I wrote the business plan for what was to become Garden & Gun.”

The magazine, which launched in the spring of 2007, took its moniker from a former gay bar in downtown Charleston. Darwin says the name is meant to evoke the lush Southern landscape — the garden — and the South’s outdoor sporting life — the gun.

Evening Post Industries, then known as Evening Post Publishing Co., initially funded the magazine, and it still maintains a small equity stake. But when the recession hit, Evening Post Industries cut the magazine loose to focus on its newspapers and TV stations.

“We did four issues the first year, seasonal, and then in 2008 we were set to do six issues, but things were going so well that we did a seventh devoted to food,” Darwin said. “And then all hell broke loose. The economy came to a screeching halt.”

Darwin, Manigault and a third partner, Georgetown lawyer Edward Bell III, bought Garden & Gun with the intent of finding some way to keep the magazine afloat.

“It was extremely tough,” Darwin said. “I talked to everybody I knew in the world who had any money to see if they were interested in publishing.”

The staff endured pay cuts, freelance writers and photographers went unpaid for long stretches, Garden & Gun skipped an issue, and there were constant battles with its printer and suppliers.

“They were demanding money and I’d say, ‘You’ll be the first to get it when we get it,’ ” Darwin said. “Our advertisers were paying extremely slow, if they were paying at all, and I just asked everyone to go along with us for the ride.”

In the end, Darwin said, it was the magazine’s readers who ensured its survival.

“Our readers were so engaged with this magazine that I truly felt we would have a revolution if we closed the magazine down,” Darwin said.

David DiBenedetto is a natural fit as Garden & Gun’s editor in chief. An outdoors type who grew up in Savannah, where he spent summer days fishing on his family’s johnboat, DiBenedetto, 42, is the type who can wax poetic about striped bass and his Boykin spaniel, then quickly shift gears to discuss a prized bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.

“I always say you could not run this magazine if you did not grow up in the South,” DiBenedetto said. “And what that does is allow me to understand what works in this magazine and what doesn’t. You have to know how Southerners think and react, what gets them going.”

DiBenedetto earned his editing chops at Field & Stream and then SaltWater Sportsman, where the magazine was nominated for general excellence by the American Society of Magazine Editors. He obsesses over staying true to what readers define as the Garden & Gun lifestyle.

“You can’t imagine the hairs we split to make sure even the wording of a (photo) caption sounds real,” he said. “It’s about getting it right on every page.”

That lifestyle is food, especially the artisanal variety, drink, handcrafted products, sports, the arts, travel, style and design, music — bluegrass, blues, jazz, anything Southern — and all things with a good story behind them. It’s about a life well-lived, according to the publication’s marketing materials.

And in keeping with the magazine’s target market, that lifestyle is very upscale. The net worth of the average Garden & Gun reader approaches $2.3 million.

It’s a lifestyle Bragg, who grew up dirt poor in rural Alabama, finds alien and somewhat amusing.

“I’m never in my life going to go hunting in a tweed jacket and plaid cap, and I’m never going to shoot a pigeon while wearing a bow tie,” Bragg said, referring to Garden & Gun’s readership. “I look at that stuff and it makes me smile. They’re obviously shooting for a readership that’s got a little cash.”

Garden & Gun’s focus on the very rich has drawn criticism, most notably from former Oxford American editor Marc Smirnoff, who said the magazine promotes “a vulgar and aggressive materialism.”

DiBenedetto takes the criticism in stride, although he disagrees with Smirnoff’s assessment.

“I think any criticism is valid, you need to hear it,” he said. “It’s too easy to believe your own hype, especially when the magazine is doing well, the numbers are great and you’re winning some awards. There’s always some room for improvement.”

Besides, DiBenedetto said, as Garden & Gun matures it is more willing to explore more serious topics including politics and race, such as a recent story that examined how Southern lunch counters changed along with the region’s racial attitudes in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. The February/March issue includes a story about Georgia congressman John Lewis and his pivotal role in the Selma-to-Montgomery civil-rights marches.

“We often joke about no politics, religion or SEC football,” DiBenedetto said. “But you can’t avoid the history of the South. You can’t whitewash it. We hope to find some stories that acknowledge that while fitting the framework of Garden & Gun.”

DiBenedetto and the magazine’s 46 other full-time employees, who’ve been working for years in cramped quarters along King Street, will move this summer to a 21,000-square-foot office at the historic Cigar Factory, currently undergoing a $55 million renovation. Garden & Gun will be the building’s largest tenant, occupying nearly a tenth of the available space.

There will be plenty of room to display the magazine’s growing collection of awards, including a pair of Ellies — the name of the American Society of Magazine Editor’s award for general excellence. Garden & Gun won the award for 2011 and again for 2014. It took second place in the online category, behind National Geographic.

“I’ll take that,” Darwin said, referring to the heady company her magazine is keeping.

Darwin’s office will be in the Cigar Factory’s former boiler room. And the magazine, which has rights to use the property’s smokestack, is looking for a way to market the Garden & Gun name there while maintaining the strict standards required by the National Register of Historic Places.

Darwin said the new space will be more flexible and allow for plenty of growth, “because I always have a lot of ideas up my sleeve.”

Among her latest initiatives is Garden & Gun Land, a marketing business that pairs conservation-minded landowners with buyers. Darwin also has created Siler Wesson, a company that is partnering with John Burrell’s High Adventure Co. to market and help expand Burrell’s big-game hunting and fishing excursion properties in the U.S., Argentina and Africa. The magazine’s book division has had two titles on The New York Times best-seller list and will be publishing a cookbook later this year.

“And there may be a new magazine one day,” Darwin said.

One of the things DiBenedetto said he’ll miss about the King Street location is the frequent visits from readers who stumble upon the magazine’s headquarters while on vacation.

“They’ll see the sign and, because Garden & Gun is such a part of their family, they just come up and visit,” he said. “There’s no security, so they come right in and say, ‘We just had to tell you that we take this magazine and we had to see your office’.”

Darwin is looking for a way to foster that same interaction at the Cigar Factory location. Garden & Gun has an option on more first-floor space that might be devoted to readers.

“That will be a place where, not through traditional retail but in a somewhat commercial way, we will be able to have a real home for our readers,” she said.

It could be a way both to show readers how important they are to the magazine, but also to measure what’s most important to them.

“After all, if you don’t produce content the reader wants to read,” Darwin said, “then you have nothing.”

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_