We are lucky to live in the South. From stalking redfish to smiling coeds to hearty plates of pulled pork, our home is a place full of beauty.
Whatever the Southern-flavored indulgence at hand may be, no publication captures that lifestyle more beautifully than Charleston-based magazine Garden & Gun. Although folks in other regions may still mock our backwards ways, a G&G reader is far more likely to look enviably upon us.
When Evening Post Publishing (the parent company of the Post and Courier) launched the magazine in 2007, only to drop it a year later (with Evening Post chairman Pierre Manigault doubling down as an investor), G&G felt like a long shot. New Yorkers in the magazine industry chuckled at the name (it's an homage to a short-lived, all-welcome dance club on King Street in the late '70s) and wrote it off as destined to fail by the time the recession let out. But armed with a growing resurgence of interest in the finer points of Southern culture — plus a troupe of the region's finest photographic eyes — G&G soldiered through at a time when its peers were gasping for breath.
This weekend, they'll transform the magazine's pages into a living portrayal of the refined Southern lifestyle through the three-day Jubilee, a festival celebrating the region's artisans, craftsmen, food, and music. The creatives on hand are universally grateful for the opportunity — in many cases, the recognition they received in the pages of G&G pushed their craft from an after-work hobby into a full-time job.
Jubilee also comes fresh on the heels of The Southerner's Handbook, G&G's first book, detailing the essentials to living properly below the Mason-Dixon line, including everything from how to make perfect biscuits (lard) to properly falling off a horse (tumble, don't thud).
All the while, G&G is steadily increasing its subscriber numbers and quietly turning a profit, during a time when most headlines warn of a hurricane season for print media that won't end until most magazines' pages are water damaged beyond repair. But as long as the South produces stories worthy of telling, G&G's roots weave deeper into solid ground.
David DiBenedetto saw the light back in 2008, although he acknowledged up front that betting the farm on G&G could leave him jobless after two years.
Raised in Savannah, DiBenedetto migrated to Vermont for college, before settling into a writing and editing career in New York with Men's Health, Field & Stream, and Salt Water Sportsman. When his co-worker, Sid Evans, headed to Charleston to take the top editorial post at G&G, then a relatively unheard of start-up, DiBenedetto mentioned that he'd be willing to relocate if the need for a second-in-command arose.
Three weeks later, his family began packing up their apartment.
"It just wasn't in my mindset that I could come south to a magazine that I respected," says DiBenedetto. "When this opportunity came up, it was a no-brainer."
Now editor-in-chief (since Evans' 2011 departure to head up Time Inc.'s lifestyle division), DiBenedetto initially figured it might only be a two-year gig; that's the mark where magazines can generally gauge if they're going to fold or press on.
In those early days, the G&G staff was literally walking to the Kinkos on Calhoun Street to print out page proofs. It's a far cry from the mag's prominent status today, including a subscriber base that's pushing 300,000 and an overall total audience number over a million. Notably, 41 percent of their readers don't live in the South. Whether it's expats stranded in New York City or West Coasters yearning for photographs of dripping biscuits, the magazine — whose tagline is "Soul of the South" — has built an audience that reaches well beyond its own borders.
Of course, that sort of popularity doesn't come without detractors. The most notable criticism came in 2012, when its fellow Southern magazine the Oxford American published a screed by founder Marc Smirnoff criticizing what he saw as a white-washed imagery of the South in G&G. In what read like a coup de grâce, the image on the Oxford American's final page depicted an overweight girl in a rebel flag bikini emerging from a swimming hole with a pitbull — clearly not G&G material.
Smirnoff criticized both Southern Living and G&G for portraying a South "that seemed cordoned off for the private use and pleasure of white people." He went on to acknowledge his jealousy that G&G had built a subscriber base six times that of Oxford American's, but followed his attack with further comments to NPR about G&G playing to fantasy notions of an idyllic, Gone With the Wind-style South that ignores politics and religion, let alone the serious racial injustices committed to prop up that lifestyle.
DiBenedetto sent a polite response and pushed the criticism aside. For unrelated reasons, at least according to the official story from the publishers, Smirnoff soon lost his position as editor of the magazine he founded. OA has since opened a restaurant, South on Main, in their headquarters-city of Little Rock, and put a new emphasis on lifestyle-based events, following G&G's lead. Even the Post and Courier recently took notes from their one-time dependent, moving local news to 1A and creating a section B dubbed "The South," with news-wraps from around the region, much like a similarly formatted section of G&G.
But even if the "Beautiful South" provides a viable business model, does G&G offer an accurate cross-sectional portrait of the region? DiBenedetto feels that it does, and he cites the juke joints and roadside stands sharing space with features about bonefishing lodges and finely made shotguns as evidence. Or, as the Lee Brothers once put it, the name matches Charleston's soul: "A little bit courtly and a little bit country."
"The truth is, open up Garden & Gun and read it, and you'll see what's really there," says DiBenedetto. "Certainly, any time you're critiqued, you read it, no matter who says it. If you're smart, you listen and say, 'OK, is there anything there that's true?' I think this magazine can always be better, and with every issue, that's what we're trying to do."
What's most surprising about The Southerner's Handbook, G&G's new book that debuted at No. 13 on the New York Times' "Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous" best sellers list, is the complete lack of photographs. For the first full-length effort by a magazine famous for its imagery to be populated with only words is a striking approach.
Calling to mind the classic American Boy's Handy Book, the nearly 300-page guide covers style, food, and outdoors skills. After reading, one ought to have an idea how to keep their silver sparkling and how best to emerge victorious from a tussle with an alligator. Likewise, a Blue Ridge native can arrive at a Lowcountry oyster roast with an understanding of proper shucking technique, while us Charlestonians learn how to harvest ramps (wild leeks) on our next weekend in Pisgah.
The short-format entries keep pages turning, perhaps inspiring word digestion even more so than a magazine page that also includes a photograph of a delicious pie or a pretty blonde and her dog. It's literally a coffee-table book that requires one to read rather than ogle.
"If the photography (in the magazine) catches your eye and gets you to start reading, then we're going to make sure the story is so good that you can't stop," says DiBenedetto, admitting that with the Handbook, they aimed to strike while the South is still enjoying prominence in the national eye (a status that's arguably thanks, in some part, to G&G itself).
"What's really wild is how passionate our readers are," he says. "Field & Stream had a circulation of over one million, but there wasn't a passion for the brand like there is here."
Several times a week, tourists walking on King Street notice the small G&G plaque outside their office and wander inside to express their love for the magazine. And those same fans respond with their wallets, as well. For this weekend's Jubilee, ticket sales have been recorded from 25 states. DiBenedetto's hope is that the event will grow into a can't-miss weekend like SEWE.
Exhibitors at the inaugural Jubilee were chosen largely through the magazine's annual Made in the South Awards, recognizing craftsmen in categories for food, drink, style, home, and outdoors. For Chris Williams, whose Johns Island-based Williams Knife Co. will have 200 knifes on display at the Jubilee, winning the overall award in 2011 allowed him to leave a career in investment banking and dig his heels in as a professional knife maker.
"I can sum up my Garden & Gun experience like this: it literally changed my life," Williams exclaims. "It took what I did as a hobby and, overnight, turned it into a full-fledged business. The power of that magazine is unbelievable."
"It's just an honor, really, to be able to showcase these folks," responds DiBenedetto, naming the ability to share the stories of "passionate people doing amazing things" at the top of his job's perks.
In truth, Williams' knives are astoundingly beautiful. It's impossible to see one and not want to hold it in your hand. Had he pressed on without media attention, he's likely to have eventually reached the point where he is now. But thanks to G&G, he's already able to support his family without a second-thought about his career-change decision.
In a country where a common economic criticism is that we no longer make anything, a media outlet is actively helping turn hobbies and dreams into viable manufacturing opportunities.
"They really are finding the best stuff out there that people are making, and it's items that have really cool stories behind them," says Williams.
Charleston-based photographer Andrew Cebulka echoes the opportunity that an association with G&G can provide, claiming that his first story for the magazine (about Greenville, S.C.) helped open doors and give him even more confidence as an artist.
"Everything they produce is pretty amazing," says Cebulka, noting that photographers he admires and learns from, including Squire Fox and Peter Frank Edwards, are regular contributors. "Garden & Gun's images have a film richness to them. There's both simplicity and complexity."
Part of that richness comes from the magazine's decision to stick with a heavy paper stock — a costly endeavor. But by adhering to quality, they claim that for at least the last two years, it's been a profitable enterprise. Word is that they'll soon be expanding to a larger office on the peninsula (their current digs are fairly tight), although they're mum on the details. And as this issue of City Paper goes to print, DiBenedetto and his core team are in New York for the Adweek Awards, where they're among an elite pool of nominees that includes Vanity Fair, Town & Country, and WSJ. Magazine for 'Hottest Lifestyle Magazine' of 2013.
"Garden & Gun has hit on something. We've filled a void," says G&G director of corporate communications Sterling Eason. "People are looking for an intelligent magazine about the Southern lifestyle that appeals to both men and women and across many interest levels, from food and drink to sporting to the hip factor on what's happening."
It's those stories that will help G&G continue to thrive, even when the world's attention shifts to a new region as the darling of the moment.
"People ask me, 'Do you think you'll run out of stories?'" says DiBenedetto. "It's never-ending. The South is a huge place, and there's a story around every corner."
For now, they're enjoying the attention, especially the en masse gathering this weekend. Eason describes Jubilee as "the ultimate expression of the magazine." At $85 for a one-day ticket, there's an argument to be made that the audience must be well-to-do, upper-crust Southerners, despite a range of stories in the magazine that certainly have appeal at any socio-economic level.
At the same time, Southerners of all colors and backgrounds have long-prided themselves on their way of doing things, whether that be a craft, a family recipe, or a regional tradition. And as culture around the world is homogenized by global media, economics dictate that the things "done right" will have more value for their unique and localized character.
Simply put, Garden & Gun's readership would rather pay for quality than settle for anything less, and their numbers are growing. When the South as a region becomes known and respected as a place where care and skill dictate our food, culture, and products, there's a second Reconstruction underfoot that could finally shake off the ghost of the less respectable parts of our past. The movement toward an authentically Beautiful South is underway.