The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine
Many people contributed to Issue 31, and I couldn’t express enough gratitude for their efforts. Its publication marked a milestone on several levels. For the first time, someone else designed its layout. In the last stages of design, I sat in GHI’s studio in Philadelphia answering questions and making last-minute design decisions. Generally, I left Andrea Hemmann alone to complete the layout, trusting her interpretation of the “roadside” aesthetic. As a designer myself, I remained completely aware of the relationship between client and artist, and mindful of my own experiences on the other side of that fence.
Second, we actually paid people. I had grown all-too-accustomed to saying with tongue-in-cheek, that Roadside paid in pie. No longer. Coffee Cup Publishing became a genuine periodical publisher. Just as that issue began to hit the countertops, we had also placed an ad in the Boston Globe advertising for an editorial assistant, which produced nearly a hundred or more responses. The interview process had already begun however, when Teri, Jerry, and myself met with one budding talent, Julie Kelly in our new and as yet unfurnished office in the first week of February. As Julie walked in, she found the three of us sitting on boxes of freshly printed copies of Issue 31 in lieu of chairs.
For myself, I looked around and imagined the space in a year’s time, imagining the hustle and bustle of staffers busy producing the magazine and website. Having spent nine years cooped up in tiny spaces in two apartments, it did seem too good to be true. People often remarked how lucky I was to have such a job, to which I always responded “Every morning when I wake up, I smile.”
Also, we had just mailed out a second direct mail piece patterned after a fold-out vintage post card booklet. I didn’t know it then, but our fulfillment house in Elgin, Illinois would soon tell me that the piece would generate a six percent response — three times the industry average. Not only that, I was told, the respondents sent in photographs and letters with their payments. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” they told me.
Though thoroughly gratified for all the effort expended to produce the issue, we all agreed the new Roadside Magazine would require some fine-tuning. To this end, we scheduled the next major editorial meeting before production of Issue 32 began. Thanks to Mr. Ball’s acquisition of Fordhook Farm we had not only the space for the meeting, but lodging for its attendees. Mr. Ball envisioned the 66 acre rolling estate in the heart of Bucks County, Pennsylvania as not just a bed and breakfast, but also a corporate conference center and a testing ground for Burpee seed varieties. Mr. Ball seemed to spare no expense in the restoration and upgrade of the facilities, which included eight guest rooms lavishly decorated and appointed, a sizeable conference center with a recently painted four-wall mural depicting the history of Burpee, and a 2000+ square-foot carriage house and residence used by Mr. Ball when in the area, but also rented out to visiting groups.
The inn’s schedule allowed for a meeting in the middle of February. We had just completed all the necessary arrangements, lassoing all those involved to trek to Doylestown, when Mr. Ball suddenly and without explanation called me to say he had cancelled the meeting. We assumed that he had a scheduling conflict, requiring us to find a new date. I considered his presence at this meeting vital, because we needed to press the matter of hiring a publisher for this promising enterprise. Mr. Ball had already missed one important meeting in Worcester back in September, and despite delegating considerable authority to me, I couldn’t fill this position without him.
Finally, Teri and I agreed that George or no George, the group of us needed to meet, and pressed his secretary to make the arrangements for us. Then, the very day we interviewed Julie Kelly in our new office space, I got a call from George at four o’clock in the afternoon.
“Yeah, uh, Randy, this meeting can’t happen.” I sensed something different in his voice. He now spoke with a detached urgency.
“I don’t understand, George. We need to get together to discuss the next issue and beyond. Plus, I wanted to ask you about hiring a publisher.”
“Yes. I know. I know. But it’s just not possible right now. You need to come down though. Can you come down here tonight?”
I looked at my watch and began to calculate the travel time. “I suppose so. If I leave in an hour, I’ll be there by eleven.”
“Good. Good. You do that, and we’ll meet tomorrow morning. Uh, just drive down to Fordhook, and they’ll have a room ready for you.”
Before I left I called Teri and told her what happened. This development baffled and concerned us, but I began to worry.
“Teri, I was always aware that at any moment, George could pull the plug on this.”
“Why would he do that now? We just released this great new issue.”
“No, I realize that, but I think something’s wrong.” We hung up and I emailed both Christine and Jerry with the news, packed a bag, and took off towards Pennsylvania.
I arrived at Fordhook Farm about 10:30 that evening, greeted by the live-in innkeeper who escorted me up to the largest and most lavish room in the mansion, the Burpee Room. As large as two-thirds my entire apartment, the Burpee Room featured a working fireplace, a balcony, and décor that reminded me of the final scene in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I hardly knew what to do with myself in the space. All the luxury was wasted on someone like me.
The next morning at eight, I met Mr. Ball for breakfast in the Inn’s main dining room. For a good hour, we seemed to discuss everything except the matters at hand. Mr. Ball described in great detail the history of the nearby Mercer Museum and why I should visit. He discussed ad nauseum with the morning innkeeper why he didn’t like the bacon. When I told him we had had the good luck to acquire an office full of furniture for free, he simply nodded his balding head and looked askance.
Of course, at the time, I also wanted to hear his feedback of the new issue, which featured a story he himself wrote about the Chimacum Café in Washington State. It almost shocked me to hear him strike an evasive tone.
“Well, I liked it,” he responded weakly, “but I just couldn’t read it!”
One year and half a million dollars later, and he could only comment on the size of the type, which was no smaller than a typical issue of the New Yorker, a magazine he professed to love. I hardly considered that a serious criticism. We could easily change the typeface or its size.
Yet despite all this make-nice conversation, I knew something was very wrong. Mr. Ball seemed distant and somewhat uninvolved with his surroundings, almost trance-like.
We continued this exercise in evasion at the Burpee offices in Warminster. Driving me down to the building, I expected us to make a beeline into his office and get down to business, but instead, he insisted on taking me for yet another tour of the facility, something he had done for me when we first met and when we met again a year later. I knew all I needed to know of Burpee’s inner workings and had no desire to revisit these bland corporate environs.
Mr. Ball showed me products for the Burpee Garden stores. He introduced me to people I met on several different occasions. And finally, as if he had nothing else to show me, he finally led me into his office, where we chitchatted more. And rather than further discuss the new magazine, Mr. Ball pulled a well-thumbed copy of Issue 30 from a pile of papers and began to praise it profusely. “I love this issue! It’s the best you’ve ever done!”
Though I had a measure of pride for every issue we produced, I thought we had completely eclipsed all past efforts with this new full-color, glossy magazine. When Mr. Ball began to make still more muted but evidently disparaging remarks about 31, I found myself speechless.
Then Stuart Hopkins, Burpee’s director of Human Resources, walked into the room and closed the door, and my personal antennae signaled dire warnings.
Once Stewart settled his elderly, paunchy frame into his chair, Mr. Ball began to talk about Burpee and some of its latest difficulties. Stuart said nothing. Unbeknownst to them, I already knew that Burpee was in trouble. The previous November the company enlisted Teri to help on the company’s next catalogue. She emerged from that with alarming stories of the company’s struggle to mail out their primary piece of marketing the Burpee Catalog on time. When she told me she had learned that the company had literally stopped the presses to make changes, I knew from my experience as a designer that the company would have to absorb a serious expense. One does not make changes with the plates set and the presses rolling at this scale unless prepared to take a huge charge. Additionally, in a fiercely competitive market, one week late with an annual seed catalog can mean the loss of a major chunk of revenue.
I solaced myself with the knowledge that our little magazine had a budget set the previous January, severely pared down from the ambitious budget drafted by John Martens. Besides, early indications told us that Roadside promised to exceed all expectations this year.
However, when he had finished with his short but woeful litany of Burpee’s problems, he looked at me suddenly like a stranger, like an adversary, devoid of any of his previous admiration, enthusiasm, or good will and said, “And because of that, we’re going to have to make a few cuts at Roadside.”
An icy tingle swept down my spine. “What, exactly, does that mean?”
“We’ll have to cut your staff and we’ll have to break the lease on the office. We’ll have to terminate Christine and Jerry. We can still do Roadside with you and Teri, but we’ll have to scale back to a quarterly.”
Given that we had only planned to produce five issues this year, I thought I saw some hope. “You mean we’re going to do four issues this year?”
Sitting far back in his chair, and with an air of detachment that began to stifle the room, he replied with a straight face, “Ah, no. We can do two, maybe three issues.”
“That’s not exactly ‘quarterly,’ George.”
I felt like a man standing before an avalanche, with nowhere to run.
“George, we just got started,” I began to plead with my mind spinning. “This makes absolutely no sense at all to me.”
With Stuart sitting lump-like in complete silence, Mr. Ball continued with some very sketchy plans returning Roadside’s to its old days, where Teri and I would publish again on uncoated stock, write all the articles ourselves, and design it back in my home office. Then he attempted to reason that this retrenchment would actually make any potential competitors wary — an argument I found completely asinine. I quickly realized that if not for my employment contract, he would have fired me right at that moment as well.
“I’m sorry, but Stuart and I have gone over everything. I thought maybe there was an accounting mistake, the misplacement of a decimal point somewhere, but," he asserted with bulging eyes, "there’s just no money.”
I knew from the instant when those last words left his lips, he was lying to me. You don’t operate at the level of Mr. Ball without having something in reserve. Fordhook Farm and its 66 acres in the most valuable county in Pennsylvania by itself had an assessed value of at least six million dollars. Mr. Ball had also previously showed off his new Hummer, boasting of the larger engine he installed. I knew he also owned two Porsches and that his private art collection on display at the inn would have some museums green with envy. I could only imagine what else the guy had in the bank.
Statements such as those made by people like that held no water with me. Mr. Ball had the money. He just chose to spend it elsewhere.
I could appreciate the fact that Burpee had hit the rocks – again – but this tactic of scuttling an enterprise costing relatively little money, showing enormous promise, seemed completely irrational. My own disappointment notwithstanding, I could see us cutting back, but Mr. Ball’s proposal to head back into the trenches would render the enterprise unviable. I had little interest in working for something that would never make a profit. I didn’t consider it a serious proposal.
Instead of working with me to find a rational solution, he had merely dictated my new reality. But I knew Mr. Ball had cast the die, and that I had to somehow accept this. I was instructed then to lay off Jerry and Christine. In so doing, I would become something I despised: A corporate tool.
Mr. Ball would have to drive me back to the inn. In a surreal moment, the one-time savior of my little magazine attempted small-talk about his music preferences. He also offered to buy me lunch. I declined. I fixed my gaze out the passenger window so as not to reveal the torrent of emotions that welled within.
He pulled the plug. Despite his half-hearted assurances to the contrary, he had stabbed the magazine in the heart. I kept thinking of the readers and those diners that had carried me all those years and up to this pinnacle, only to have Mr. Ball push me off and fall to a level I could only hope didn’t lie back at the bottom.
©2001 Randy Garbin