My sleeping bag was protecting me from the highly questionable linen in the discounted motel room.The air outside was winter crisp while inside it was the scent of headaches. Lemony Lysol with a hint of nicotine. My dogs, two nervous heelers, paced the well-worn carpet, panting. Empty Coors Light cans piled up on my bedside table. I was in Durango to start a magazine and this was just the first night of many identical nights I would spend in that room over the next two years.
It was around this same time that my career, as I knew it, was falling apart. Budgets at the publications I so much depended on were being slashed. Staff photographers, who were being laid off in droves ( I used to be one of them), flooded onto the streets to compete with me for what scraps that were still available. And digital photography had all but leveled what was once a formidable hurdle into the profession. Everybody it seemed, overnight, was now a photographer.
One early morning during the previous summer I found myself sobbing in a window seat on a Southwest flight. The tears caught me off guard but they were not out of the blue. It was there in the National section of the prominent publication I had been reading since takeoff – a newspaper I proudly freelanced for– that I saw a black and white picture of a ranch. There was a fence. A cowboy. Maybe two. It was dusty. The sky was big.
It’s a funny thing about seasoned newspaper and magazine photographers, like savants, they can tell you, without a hint, who took a given picture just by looking at it. They can also narrow down its location just by noting the horizon. Or the quality of the light.
I new immediately that the picture in front of me was no doubt taken in New Mexico – and it wasn’t mine.But the style felt unfamiliar so I took note of the byline. And just like that, my fate was sealed. It was former President George W. Bush’s photographer. A native New Mexican – whom I knew and admired and liked very much – who had obviously returned home equipped with a pedigree I could not compete with. I knew this was my unannounced replacement. While I would have vehemently denied it prior to this moment every ounce of my self-worth was wrapped up in that job. Being thatguy. And now, just like that, I wasn’t, and I literally began shedding tears at the harsh realization; I was no longer important.
True peace is not to be found outside of yourself. I did not have this epiphany as you will soon learn.
I had photographed the founders of Edible Communities for The New York Times several years before ‘the flight.’ They lived in Santa Fe. So did I. We would run into each other at the Whole Foods. Carol and Tracey. I always thought they liked me because I worked for The Times.I had a few friends like that – most of whom didn’t understand that The Timeswasn’t inviting me to any Christmas parties. I was just a semi-anonymous hired gun. Since photographing Tracey and Carol, I had spent the proceeding few years marketing my work to them thinking that their growing empire of Edible titles certainly needed a photographer. It didn’t. Edible titles, I would soon intimately learn, are do-it-yourself operations.
So freshly stripped of my purpose and my meaning I casted a desperate net. I thought, if no one is hiring, then maybe I will have to hire myself and start my own publication. Yes! Tracey! I will call Tracey. She knows me. I will start an Edible title somewhere. Albuquerque? Taken.Santa Fe? Taken.Tucson? Too far.El Paso? But … it’s El Paso.Durango? Yes, Durango!Back home to Colorado. It is divine intervention! Durango. And Telluride. I love Telluride. And Pagosa! I have never really stopped there but my Texas relatives sure do talk it up. Cortez? Where exactly is Cortez? I will find it later. I will get this off the ground and my wife and I will move back to Colorado. Full circle. It all makes sense!
“Have you read this contract?” my cousin’s wife, a corporate lawyer, said to me.
I had. But that didn’t mean anything. Tracey and Carol could have been asking me to tattoo my eyelids with the Edible logo it would not have mattered. This was an emergency. I needed purpose. Besides, I only had her read it because it felt like the right thing to do.
“It is over-reaching,” she said. “I wouldn’t sign it.”
So I did.
In 2010, you could purchase a license to publish an Edible title or you could buy three brand new nicely equipped Subarus. That is not a typo. This didn’t matter if you’re hoping to publish in Durango or Manhattan. Same price.
Here are the obvious things I refused to consider (besides the contract and the price tag and the smell of desperation in the air):
I didn’t live in Southwest Colorado. This was problem number one. If you have any chance at success as a publisher (and I use this term loosely) you need to live in the community in which you publish. This may seem obvious to you. It didn’t to me. In my defense, moving back to Colorado was always the plan once the magazine was off the ground. It was my home. Neither of these things happened.
I am not a salesman. This could very easily be problem number one. Here is my advice to you. Please, heed it. Let’s say you have an idea for a business. For this exercise let’s call it pickles. People have always raved about your pickles, so why not? You want to sell locally sourced, hand picked, hand brined, hand packed, organic, gluten free, vegan, non-GMO, artisan pickles served in recycled jelly jars. At night, you envision your cozy store front. Or your mobile pickle truck. Even better! You can already see your custom designed packaging. Oh yes. Hand written labels on recycled paper. You donate pickles to the school system. Leftovers go to the homeless shelter. You sponsor concerts. And farm to table pickle dinners. Savvy chefs demand your pickled products.
I say stop. Listen to me and listen good. Don’t ruin your love of pickles by turning it into a business. But if you insist, be ready to relinquish pickle making to somebody else. Why? Because if you don’t sell your pickles then you won’t be making pickles for long. And nobody can sell your pickles like you. But that is not all. When you are not selling, you are managing your pickle makers and your pre-pickle growers and your pickling process. And oh crud, your automatic pickle packer broke last night and you need to drive where to get the part? Park City? And it is … what? How much? That’s more than my Subaru’s worth!
I came into the publishing business as a lover of photography and writing. I was a content producer. People called me, told me what to do and I went and did it.
But the publishing business isn’t writing or shooting. It’s selling. It’s brand development. It’s public relations. It’s managing people ( Creatives to-boot – which is like managing the ward in the hospital that is under 24/7 lock down). Publishing is dealing with all of the push back. Take this to the bank Pickle Pete, it will only be a matter of time before everybody will know better than you as to how to run your pickle business.
Granted, I would rather sell pickles than advertising. At least pickles are tangible. You give me a dollar – I give you a pickle. With advertising, you give me a dollar and I will do the best I can to return two dollars in a very roundabout and an entirely non-verifiable way. No promises though.
So there I am at the motel. It is a wet and cold December and I have not a single advertiser. The half-baked due diligence that I managed to undergo prior to signing the contract left me with a handful of hopeful contacts. Like three. One of which whom, (and at the time, maybe the most crucial) would abruptly cut off all ties with me the very first day I hit the ground. And to you, I apologize. My intentions were always purely focused on the magazine. I was over my head. You offered help and I needed it. Whatever happened is a misunderstanding that haunts me to this day. Couldn’t you sense my desperation? Or, maybe you could and that was exactly the problem.
With my savings gone, I was beginning to believe that I had made the biggest mistake of my life (again).
I bought a soft water system for our house this year just to get rid of the forlorn salesman who was practically camping in our living room. We did need a water softener (our well water had a high mineral content which included pre-made kidney stones). We just didn’t need one that day. So why didn’t I just say no? I felt bad for him, that’s why. It was dinner time. He was north of middle aged – his hair and mustache colored an unnatural brownish red – the sheen of shoe polish. It only seemed sad because it was so apparent. He was married. His wife called twice while he sat at our kitchen table. When will you be home? He was an exhausted dad and it was obvious to me he needed the commission. If nothing else then his worn out shoes gave it away.
Selling requires one to be assertive. Persistent. A closer. I was none of these things. I despised it. So unlike Water Softener Sam I employed the slow sell (it was the only way I could tolerate it). It took several visits to even posit the question: ‘would you be interested in advertising with us? Our readers are your customers.’ Then, if I sensed any doubt, which I often did, I would practically take them by the hand and say, ‘its ok, you don’t have to do this.’ I just don’t like to watch people squirm.
I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable with the process. And it was an uncomfortableness that eventually festered into a incurable case of unwillingness.
A successful magazine title (I now know) integrates itself into the community. It builds brand awareness with every move it makes, including story selection. It sponsors events. It attends events. It creates its own events. It has contests. It has community service awards associated with its carefully curated brand. It writes stories about its advertisers and how delicious their pickles are. And you’re saying, yeah? And I am saying: I would rather have swept floors. I honestly thought that if we wrote compelling and well crafted local stories with local talent and took really good pictures and packaged them together with a thoughtful design and then printed on high quality paper with high quality machines that that would enough. I was wrong.
Our magazine never made money. The initial loan was repaid by another loan.
And I never could pay myself one single dollar. This fall, after 8 years and 34 issues, we essentially ran out of capital while I simultaneously ran out of interest. Maybe they went hand in hand. I know that I just couldn’t endure the prevailing winds for one more day.
I think we were purists, Rachel Turiel and I. Business partners (she was the managing editor) with no stomach for business. The artsy type I guess (although I have a very hard time with that overused word). Believers in the power of a good story even as the boat took on water – and it was always taking on water. Eight years ago, she was a reluctant contributor –possibly suspicious of my showy car (I had a new-ish yolk-yellow SUV that I bought on a whim from an overly aggressive you-know-what. It announced to the world that I am a maker of poor choices.) and my muddled motivations (My ideas always exist as something like vapor and for me to explain them with words has always been torture. I always sound vague, even to myself.). Now, looking back, God, or the universe, or whatever you are comfortable with pushed me in this direction (against all better judgment) simply so I could meet her and together we could, for a brief period in time, make some cool meaningful stuff with some creative and thoughtful people that issue after issue kind of mattered (at least to somebody). I think she will tell you that it was invaluable for her as a writer, an editor and a person. It certainly was for me. We were like Scalia and Bader Ginsburg – not in our import, of course, but simply in the nature of our way. We were two people who managed to agree on almost everything despite coming from polar opposite points of view. You are dear to me. I will miss making things with you. But I also can’t wait to see what is next for both of us.
And lastly, I would like to thank the readers. You were always central to our philosophy and you knew that and appreciated it issue after issue. And that brings me all the peace I need.
I would be remiss if I did not thank a whole bunch of people who made this enterprise possible. First the advertisers and there are many of you. Please forgive me if I do not mention all of you. I want to thank Tim Turner first because he was the very first advertiser to sign on to a magazine that did not exist in any form. I was plagued with doubt and regret (and lack of sleep from motel living) when he invited me for lunch at Zia Taqueria on N. Main. I felt welcomed and hopeful.
I needed that. Thank you. I would like to thank Alison Dance at Cyprus for her mentoring by example, patience and her start to finish support. I want to thank Lucas Price at La Cocina de Luz in Telluride for his friendship and support from the first issue to the last. Thank you for truly believing in our mission. I am hoping our paths will cross in the near future. Thank you Chad Scothorn at Cosmo in Telluride. You too took a chance with us and for eight years never asked for anything in return but our best effort. Thank you Cynthia Stewart and Dan and Becca and everybody at James Ranch. Thank you for your patience and thank you for your friendship. You were an anchor in what was often challenging weather. Thank you to Brenda Grajeda at Seven Rivers. Your office was always open and the conversations always rich. I appreciate you holding our back page issue after issue and, more importantly, your friendship.
Thank you Jessie Kileen at Grassburger. I always valued our good conversations. You were always busy but always had time. Thank you Holly Zink and everybody at Sunnyside Farms Market. We counted on you and you never asked for anything in return but accuracy (and thank you too, Sara Olsen, for putting up with my last second design requests, issue after issue after issue). Thank you Mick and everybody at Steaming Bean Coffee. You win the ESWCO award for the easiest going business owner in the Southwest. Thank you for your generosity. Thank you Shannon Kunkel. I hope we helped sell a house or two for you. Thank you to everybody at Southwest Midwives. Issue after issue from the beginning you were there. Thank you Sharee. Honeyville didn’t need us. You knew that but happily supported us anyway. Thank you to Michael Thunder for your support, your wicked talent, your counseling and your friendship. You were my guiding light. I won’t say goodbye because we will probably talk later this week. And thank you to everybody at Ska. Your sense of community does not go unrecognized. We needed you and you knew it and you stepped up. Thank you to everybody at Elderberry’s, the girls at the Butcher and the Baker, Mr. Grumpy Pants in Ouray. If I hadn’t actually laid eyes on you I wouldn’t think you really existed. Chipeta in Ridgway, everybody at Carver’s in Durango, Chris Crowl and James Allred at Eolus. Chris, your generosity through the years was appreciated more than I can express. Thank you to everybody at Hilltop Senior Living Communities, Peach St. Distillery, the Western Farm Forum, Mountain West Seed Summit, Ortho-Bionomy, John A. Rothchild DDS and your dental clinic, Southwest Farm Fresh, Rusty and Laurie at The Farm in Cortez, Durango Organics, Dolores River Brewing, thank you to Britny at Wines of the San Juans, Main St. Bagels in Grand Junction, the multi-talented Katie Burford at Cream Bean Berry, the Durango Farmers Market, the Telluride Farmers Market, Montrose and Ridgway. Thank you to the town of Grand Junction. Thank you to The Weisbaden in Ouray, Karen at Seasons in Durango and Eliza at 221 South Oak in Telluride.
I would also like to thank our contributors who made this magazine what it was. I truly admire you all. The pay never matched the expectations. I hope you all feel you came out a little better at your craft. I know I did. Thank you to Sarah Syverson. I will miss our conversations. I will never forget hiding under a school desk in a locked pitch-black classroom full of grade schoolers as the authorities looked for a suspicious subject on the premises. Hail Robert Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral. Thank you Katie Burford (again). Our paths keep crossing and I am always the better for it. Thank you for sharing your immense talent and your friendship. Thank you Becca James. We could always count on you to elegantly and creatively pull us out of a jam. Thank you to Dan Hinds. I envy your point of view simply because, only like an artist, it is so uniquely yours. You brought a much needed and talented voice to the magazine. Thank you Kate Husted. You always delivered above and beyond. I will miss reading your poetic and visceral prose. Thank you Katie Esperes-Stevens (Harr). I am finally learning how to spell your name just in time for it to be too late. You are a talent. Thank you Lauren Slaff. Thank you for your endless ideas. Thank you for your contributions. Your spectacular wit. Your recipes. Your dinners. Your friendship. See you soon. Thank you Zach Hively. I can’t believe how our worlds melded. Thank you to Jess Kelley. Your humor, skill and friendship were and are invaluable to me. I would like to thank Bonni Pacheco for her beautiful photography, her energy and her caring spirit. You will go far in this world. I truly admire you and I hope we will always remain friends. And thank you to Tim Kaputska. You were like my Main St. Oracle. Thank you Sharon Sullivan, Sheryl McGourty, Katie Klingsporn (your resourcefulness, reliability and talent were appreciated more than I can express) Katrina Blair, Laura Thomas (who kindly guided me through some of the early days), Malia Durbano, Samantha Tisdel Wright, Art Goodtimes, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer (for introducing our readers and our editors to home grown poetry), Deb Dion, Erica Olsen, Ivey Patton and Gretchen Treadwell. I would like to thank Michelle Ellis for holding my hand through much of this. You believed in me before you even met me. Thank you. And Rachel Turiel. I had an idea and you guided it to fruition. Thank you for your hard work, your art and your friendship.
I know their are more of you. Writers who came and went. Advertisers who tested the waters and decided it was not a good fit. In this tiny and highly specialized endeavor, you all mattered.