Garden & Gun claws way back from brink Charleston magazine ‘love song to the South’

DiBenedetto

Among the many magazines that were battered by the recession, few survived such a precarious financial state as Garden & Gun.

In 2009, the two-year-old Southern lifestyle magazine lost financial support from its first publisher. Its employees, many of whom had relocated from New York City to work in Charleston, were left with dwindling buyout packages and the promise of freelance pay.

Real estate developers could no longer afford to buy advertisements, and some new prospects said they would not give a cent to the magazine until the owners took “gun” out of its title.

David DiBenedetto, the editor in chief, recalled that when the magazine’s color printer broke, the staff did not have the money to replace it for two months.

“You didn’t know if you would be there the next week,” DiBenedetto said as he picked over a lunch of peach soup, fried green tomatoes and catfish at Husk restaurant. He and his wife moved here from New York so he could work at Garden & Gun.

It did not help that Garden & Gun’s spare layouts and meandering prose differed radically from the shorter, flashier articles many magazines were moving toward to compete with Facebook and Twitter.

But now, its provocative name and contrarian approach seem to be paying off in a struggling magazine industry. The bimonthly won a 2011 American Society of Magazine Editors award for general excellence, and its editors have a three-book deal with HarperCollins to publish a Southern guide, a collection of dog columns and a cookbook.

With advertisers like Audi, Le Creuset and Brooks Brothers on board, the magazine’s owners forecast that it could be profitable for the first time this year. While circulation is slipping across the magazine industry, Garden & Gun’s circulation grew to 237,837 subscribers in December 2011 from 210,172 the year before, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The magazine, based out of a 200-year-old former pharmacy on Charleston’s historic King Street, was founded as what Jessica Hundhausen Derrick, its vice president and brand development director, described as “a love song to the South.”

It included articles about backyard ginmakers, woodworkers crafting chairs from whiskey barrels, and Southern produce such as Georgia rattlesnake watermelon.

And to feed advertisers’ anxieties, nearly every issue featured unapologetic articles in praise of hunting. There were essays on quail hunts, hunting clubs and hunting dogs, often written with an emphasis on land preservation and basking in sumptuous photo spreads.

The magazine has taken a very modern approach to publishing. It began the Garden & Gun Club, which offers subscribers discounts and access to private concerts and talks. So far, 3,000 subscribers are paying $35 to $500 a year for one of three membership levels.

The magazine is holding 30 events this year, including a “Lowcountry Field Feast” in South Carolina, a golf event in Georgia and a New Orleans beer festival this fall. These kinds of initiatives depend heavily on loyal readers, which Garden & Gun has in abundance.

The magazine grew out of a conversation between two parents in a Charleston kindergarten class. The first parent, Rebecca Wesson Darwin, was a native of Columbia and a former New Yorker publisher who relocated to Charleston in 2004 because her husband accepted a job as senior pastor at the Second Presbyterian Church.

The second parent was Pierre Manigault, chairman of the Evening Post Publishing Company, which publishes The Post and Courier. Manigault’s ancestors were Huguenots who moved to Charleston in the 17th century and shifted into the newspaper business with the decline of rice farming.

At first, Darwin talked to Manigault about starting a local magazine. But she quickly decided there was a greater need for “a national magazine about a region.”

Manigault’s friend and Garden & Gun’s first editor in chief, John Wilson, suggested the title after taking a date to Hank’s Restaurant in Charleston and learning that it used to be a gay bar called the Garden and Gun Club.

Darwin had never hunted and no longer had time for gardening after moving to Charleston. But she said she liked that Garden & Gun was “a bold name” and “a metaphor for the sporting life.”

The first issue made its debut on newsstands in spring 2007, days before the shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. But Garden & Gun’s popularity grew steadily that year, and readers wrote long, impassioned letters to the editor.

By fall 2008, newspaper executives said they could no longer afford the magazine. Darwin and Manigault negotiated a deal to buy it from them and started making trip after trip to banks for temporary loans.

Darwin, who ran the daily operations, told employees they could stay and come to work as freelancers. She did not have the money to print or mail an October/November issue and instead wrote an apology letter to readers.

The employees who remained worked together to keep the magazine afloat.

By May 2010, J. Edward Bell III, a lawyer from Georgetown, had become a major investor and the third co-owner along with Darwin and Manigault.

Bell, who discovered the magazine when he read a copy on a flight from Colorado, said he was “instantly hooked.”

Since then, Garden & Gun has had a slow but steady rise. Darwin brought back most of her staff. In early 2010, she hired Barbara Bing, an Atlanta-based publisher, to build a national sales team.

Bing refused requests by advertisers to change the name and said she hoped to increase circulation to 500,000.

While 55 percent of the magazine’s readers come from the Southeast, the rest come from other parts of the nation.

“You don’t have to be Southern and you don’t have to live in the South to appreciate Garden & Gun,” Bing said. “But you do have to have the time to read.”