The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Chapter 7

In 1993, after Roadside had generated considerable publicity, including a major piece in the New York Times in June of that year, I began to harbor this little fantasy. Somewhere, high up in some skyscraper in Manhattan, in the offices of a major publishing house, some high-powered executive closely watched our progress, admiring our Moxie. This executive probably picked up the magazine at the Pearl Street Diner near Wall Street or took lunch at the Empire Diner on the West Side every few weeks, reading Roadside over his or her cup of coffee. At some point, when this executive felt the time had come, he’d make that call.

In the summer of 1993, that call did come. The other person on the line spoke with great erudition and apparent sincerity in his regard for our efforts. He conversed eloquently about the demise of the great American roadside, and how much he loved the wonderful down home atmosphere of diners. I did puzzle over his suggestion that we feature roadside farm stands.

This caller introduced himself as George Ball. The name, at the time, meant nothing to me.

By this time, I received calls on a regular basis from people calling to “talk diners.” Most of the conversations made for wonderful excuses to fritter the time away, because people who cared about this subject tended to be quite educated, worldly, and well-traveled. Also, they called from all parts of the country, and often they painted the picture for me of what I soon hoped to visit for myself.

Truth be told, on occasion, the callers could be a little over-intense about the subject. Some suggested, for instance, that we form diner “hit squads” to picket diners about to undergo renovations.

However, this caller indicated a higher degree of sophistication than most. He had a voice that could one might hear on an FM radio station or as an NPR announcer. This caller introduced himself as George Ball. The name, at the time, meant nothing to me.

“And please,” he said as we finished our lengthy, thoughtful conversation, “say hello to Teri Dunn when you get a chance. She’s a friend of mine. We both went to Bard College.”

“Sure thing, George.”

I said my good-byes, hung up, and then dialed Teri.

“Oh my God! George Ball called YOU?” My newest dearest friend had jumped out of her skin, I feared.

Teri had great enthusiasm for many things and often expressed her opinions with great passion, but even this reaction soared off the charts. “Do you know who he is?” she asked me.

“No,  not a clue.”

“He owns Burpee Seeds! He’s got more money than God!”

How impressive, I thought. Maybe Mr. Ball’s my executive angel. Except, instead of an office in a Manhattan skyscraper, Mr. Ball kept his in a modest industrial building in Warminster, Pennsylvania, and he picked up his Roadside at Daddypop’s Diner in nearby Hatboro.

Recently, over a business breakfast at the Ritz in Boston on behalf of her employer, Horticulture Magazine, Teri had met Mr. Ball. After they discussed the seed business, the conversation turned to, among other things, this little paper she edited. They also discovered that they'd both attended Bard College.A tiny school in New York State's Hudson Valley, it produces very few alums at a time, so other “Bardies” are rarely encountered. That Mr. Ball didn’t actually graduate apparently hardly mattered to the school, though. George’s pedigree and deep pockets practically bought him entry into this clique.

For whatever reason, I didn’t pursue Mr. Ball any further after this. Roadside hardly generated loads of income for anyone, but I remained optimistic that something would break for us, and soon. Still, as the days turned to weeks afterwards, I mostly forgot about the conversation, and never bothered to enter George Ball into our mailing list.

The first Roadside hiatus came a year and a half after moving to Worcester, Mass. I picked up everything from the rented house in Watertown, and shifted operations west, partly because of all the diners in Worcester, partly because I would be closer to my new freelance gig at Darby O’Brien Advertising in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and partly because I had recognized Worcester as one of those old, mid-sized, mill towns grappling with redefining its role in the new economy. I wanted Roadside, already starting to champion “sustainable development,” to be a part of that debate.

Plus, the rents in Worcester were a fraction of what we paid in the Boston area.

I spent three years at Darby O’Brien, starting in January of 1994, working on projects for the firm as well as using their computers and facilities to aid in Roadside’s production. I commuted an hour each way for three days out of the week, and essentially maintained a separate office outside of the home. The work also provided extra income while the flexible schedule allowed for road trips and other Roadside-related events. Also, I simply appreciated getting out of the house and interacting with others on a regular basis.

I actually learned much about what the industry termed guerrilla marketing and honed my copywriting skills. I worked on several rewarding projects, designing two annual reports, a trends newsletter, logos, and newspaper advertising. At then end of my term there, I had stuffed my portfolio with several projects I consider milestones of my career, but in the end, Roadside was still my first priority, and the two worlds began to collide.

During the hiatus, I hardly stood still. Before issue 19, I had completed a second visit to Jerry Berta’s Diner World, covering the trip extensively. During the Summer of that year, I embarked on an lengthy “close-to-home” road trip I dubbed, “Montreal by way of Newark,” traveling from Worcester to New Jersey, then up the Hudson Valley to Montreal, and then returning home. Besides finally visiting a score of Jersey diners I had missed on previous rambles, the trip will forever stand out as the one where I found myself in the heart of Newark at the moment the jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty. Given the public demonstrations of joy from the residents of the African-American neighborhood I drove through, I can only imagine what might have happened to this white boy if the verdict turned the other way.

In the autumn of that year, the tabloid era finally came to a close. Issue 20, the first Roadside in magazine format debuted with a cover story by Kevin Shea about the exportation of the Excellent Diner to Germany. That issue, the first printed by Saltus Press in Worcester, also bowed to a bit of reality by omitting the seasonal designation. From that point on, Roadside would simply have numbers.

The new format, complete with a glossy, color cover, raised eyebrows. I could immediately see the greater impression Roadside now made on diner owners and others to whom we presented it. We did raise our ad rates by a modest amount and upped our subscription rates from fourteen to sixteen dollars, but for most people, the product had added value that justified the extra cost.

However, we soon discovered the extra work inherited with this new format. Tracking and designing 32 standard pages takes much more time and effort than 16 tabloid pages. Production slowed even more. We had already stopped promising people a yearly subscription, reverting instead to a vow of four issues. “You’ll get it when we mail it,” and amazingly, the vast majority of subscribers didn’t much care. As long as it finally arrived, they were content. But by that time, the shipping of each issue inspired less the pride of a job well-done than the relief of a burden lifted.

Next time: Roadside and the American Diner Museum