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Garden & Gun: a print survivor

Featuring a scrumptious-looking biscuit stuffed with possibly jam and cheese on its October/November cover, Garden & Gun magazine certainly appeals to a Southerner’s sense of taste and sight. But aside from the delicacies dripping off the page, its title gives the magazine a sense of gender neutrality, something Rebecca Darwin, president and CEO, always wanted to accomplish in a magazine.

According to Darwin, the magazine got its name from the Garden & Gun Club, a Charleston, S.C., gay bar that existed in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s and was considered quite progressive. “I think it was a little bit like the Studio 54 of Charleston. When I heard that combination, I could just picture that this was the perfect title for what this magazine was going to be all about, and that it was something that was going to grab someone’s attention,” she said. The words themselves are a metaphor for the garden being the land and water, while the gun is for sportsmanship, which is “one of the pillars of the magazine,” she said.

Garden & Gun has evolved from its initial concept and covers everything in Southern culture, including food, architecture and travel. But its Southern charm and dual-gender appeal aren’t the only reasons the magazine is considered special. Launched in 2007, it weathered some of the print industry’s rockiest times. In hindsight, Darwin said it wasn’t the best time to launch a magazine.

By the end of 2008, the Evening Post Company, which funded the magazine, had to protect their assets and dropped Garden & Gun. So Darwin bought it along with partners Pierre Manigualt and J. Edward Bell III. “There were definitely days I wondered, how are we going to do this?” And they did skip an issue in 2009 to regroup.

But the readership is passionate. Darwin noted she once received a letter from a man telling her that if she shut down the magazine, he would hunt her down and shoot her – jokingly of course. Today, the publication that launched with a 150,000 distribution has grown to 275,000. Forty-five percent of that circulation is actually outside of the southeast. It has also won a National Magazine Award in General Excellence from the American Society of Magazine Editors, and was named a 2011 Magazine A-Lister by Advertising Age.

Meanwhile, a digital edition for both the iPad and smartphones will be available next year, although Darwin noted there hasn’t been a huge demand. “I think it will allow us some opportunities to do something with the European audience, who I think might find this magazine very appealing. We kind of like to watch other people and see what mistakes they make.” Other efforts include a newsletter, activity on Twitter and Pinterest, and a heavy presence on Facebook, where engagement through contests has also been a key strategy. And everyone knows, social media is crucial in this digital world.

Where many magazines failed to weather the storm in those darkest hours, Garden & Gun survived and has thrived, surpassing its regional base to become a national magazine with a regional focus. And that’s pretty unique. “I think if a magazine didn’t make it through there was a reason it didn’t make it through,” she said. “I think we’ve shown a really good old fashioned magazine that you can hold onto and is your friend and is not something people want to give up.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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