The age of the magazine is over, and its end was quick (if not particularly merciful). When I started working at Borders back in 2010, there was a wall of magazines that took up an entire side of the store. You wanted seven different kinds of knitting magazines? We had them. You wanted multiple ways of thinking about golf in large glossy format? No problem. Don’t get me started on professional wrestling, booze, or big dumb trucks. We had multiple magazines dedicated to each.
Less than a year later, that wall was down to a quarter the size it had been. (And of course less than a year after that Borders itself was closed, though the two events are not directly related.) We all understand why: I don’t need multiple knitting magazines when there’s the internet. (I mean, I don’t need any knitting magazines, but if I were the sort of person who did I’d find stuff free online instead of in a bookstore.) Golf can be watched on Youtube, for those who are into such things. And wrestling, booze, and big dumb trucks all have their own social media feeds. (I assume.)
So what’s left for magazines? They still exist, of course. But clearly they don’t have the prominence they enjoyed even fifteen years ago. Maybe we stop to notice the ‘sexiest man alive’ once a year and wonder why someone thought it should be Blake Shelton (something Shelton himself wondered publicly–“Did every other man on the planet die or something?”), and I know there are a handful of specialty magazines still running. But it’s also clear that in order to pay the increasing cost of publishing, magazines have had to move in a different direction. Instead of hyper-focus on a limited area of interest, some magazines have focused instead on a combination of excellence in writing and wide-ranging interests–often in with a parallel-but-only-loosely-related website.
One such magazine is Garden & Gun. Garden and Gun is claims to focus on the lifestyle of the American South, with regular acknowledgement that “the South” can be tricky to define. Obviously there are areas that are not part of the South (don’t expect to read much about Oregon or Vermont or North Dakota). And there are areas that are part of the South (Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana are indisputably Southern). Yet there’s also that hazy transitional zone that is always up for debate. Missouri, for example, isn’t often in the magazine, while Kentucky, Maryland, and Washington DC are.
Within this geographic limitation, there are obviously a lot of topics that are up for consideration. Garden and Gun has clearly targeted at a specific upper class demographic (i.e. not my demographic), and the result is a magazine that is absolutely bonkers and I love it. Just to take the most recent issue, you can see Dierks Bentley’s leopard print chairs, read about some up-and-coming names in Blues and Southern Rock, and see a room decorated with a $1000 wicker cart. You can also read a truly excellent essay by Rick Bragg about how he doesn’t really know the difference between high quality liquor and the cheap stuff, or a column by Roy Blount about how maybe we should just have simple foods at restaurants and don’t really need a combination of Lebanese tabbouleh, Peruvian Chicken, and Mongolian Yak Milk (which tells you the kinds of places Mr. Blount eats).
The end product here is a magazine that combines upper-crust voyeurism with superb writing, and if you can get the subscription for under $20 it is absolutely worthwhile.
I should point out that there are at least two drawbacks to Garden & Gun. First, it can be hard to tell the advertisements from the content if you don’t pay attention to the top of the page where “Advertisement” is noted in small print. That’s clearly an intentional choice by the editors, and can get annoying.
Second, the thing clearly missing from the pages of a magazine dedicated to the American South is religion. Again, this may be a demographic question. If the magazine were aimed at the lower middle class or poor, maybe churches would be front and center. But whatever the reason you’ll generally search in vain for Christianity in between the glossy covers.
So where does that leave us? Again, magazines are clearly on the decline. Whether Garden & Gun‘s model of combining high quality with broad-but-limited focus will work remains to be seen. But it’s a heck of a thing for us to watch along the way.