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Garden & Gun magazine bills itself as the "Soul of the South." In five short years, the up-and-coming magazine has amassed a dedicated following and picked up critical acclaim.
The cover of the summer issue of Garden & Gun entices you to hit a Southern road. A smiling young woman in skinny white jeans, a straw hat and wayfarers tucked into her pocket appears ready to jump into a vintage red Mercedes roadster, top down — all under a bright Carolina blue sky.
Earlier this spring, Editor-in-Chief David DiBenedetto was cooking up the cover with his staff.
"I think there are three things that we need to think about: We gotta say roads, we gotta say summer and gotta say South," he told them.
The wall of the magazine's Charleston, S.C., office is covered with shots of cars, beaches and beautiful women.
DiBenedetto says every pitch does not necessarily have to involve a shotgun or a magnolia blossom.
"Don't judge it by its name," he says.
The Magazine's Spirit
The Savannah, Ga., native spent 12 years in the New York publishing world before joining G&G, as they call it. He says he instantly saw the appeal.
"This is a magazine that is about everything in the South that I love," he says. "It's not just about being in the field, hunting or fishing; it's about culture, it's about art, it's about bourbon and BBQ. It was about everything that I truly missed."
The magazine has a distinct feel — with thick paper and vivid photography. It launched in 2007 with writer Pat Conroy on the cover, and counts among its contributors Roy Blount Jr., Clyde Edgerton and Julia Reed. Tom Brokaw once wrote a tribute to his bird dogs.
The name "Garden & Gun" comes from a now-defunct Charleston nightclub, popular in the 1970s. President and CEO Rebecca Darwin says it captures the spirit of the magazine.
"The 'garden' is really a metaphor for the land," she says, "which is really what's at the heart of this whole magazine. And then the 'gun' is the sporting life, which is, of course, a key element of the magazine."
The summer issue includes a recipe for strawberry moonshine-fried pies, a profile of Alabama folk artist Thornton Dial, Southern road trip pit stops, fly-fishing in South America and island hopping in Bermuda.
A Southern Perspective
Darwin co-founded Garden & Gun when she returned to South Carolina after a lengthy magazine career in New York, including a stint as publisher of The New Yorker.
She saw an opening for a magazine showcasing fine Southern living — one that could draw both women and men.
"I did want the magazine to appeal to a sophisticated, worldly person. And it's not to say that the person who reads G&G doesn't read Conde Nast Traveler, or Vanity Fair or whatever it is," she says. "But so many of those magazines do what they do really, really well, but most of their stories come out of the Northeast or the West Coast. And I do think that there is another world here."
Charleston native Pierre Manigault was in search of content about that world.
"There was nothing out there that was a magazine for my daily lifestyle," he says.
Manigault, chairman of the board of the Evening Post Publishing Co., is helped start Garden & Gun.
"I think a lot of people have looked at the South as being a backwoods place, a backwater. Charleston's been a backwater since after the Civil War. And I think now it's really coming into a new golden age," he says. "We've made it through the traumas of racism and integration. ... We have finally gotten past the Civil War. We've finally gotten past Reconstruction. It's a wonderful story to be told, that nobody was telling."
The magazine appears to have appeal beyond Dixie. Some 45 percent of its subscribers live elsewhere.
The 'G&G Experience'
Readership surged last year after Garden & Gun picked up the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Circulation is now about 260,000 readers — a 73 percent jump since its inception.
But the publication has not been immune to the struggles facing print media. Early on, it skipped an issue because of financial shortfalls.
That's when Darwin decided to further tap her most loyal readers by offering them a way to live out the "Garden & Gun experience."
By paying to join the Garden & Gun club, members can attend events like a candlelight affair at the historic South Carolina Society Hall in Charleston.
In the kitchen, renowned chef Joseph Lenn of Blackberry Farm in Tennessee arms waiters with tiles of local oysters. It's round one of a five-course meal he's preparing for Garden & Gun's Secret Society Supper Club. Lenn is pleased to be associated with G&G.
"I think that their magazine really kind of represents the South on a national level for people who always are like, 'What's so great about the South?' " he says. "And it's one of my favorite magazines. The classic cocktails, and food and traditions."
Julie and Robert Hicks of Lexington, S.C., are new members to the Secret Society, but have been reading Garden & Gun since Robert Hicks pilfered the first issue from a doctor's office.
Julie Hicks says this magazine "just goes deeper" than other magazines geared to the South.
"Southern Living is like Coca-Cola and Garden & Gun is like a good bourbon," Robert Hicks says.
The G&G clubs go on skeet shoots, mountain getaways and bourbon tastings. This fall, there's "An Ode to Hemingway's Cuba" at Sea Island, Ga., with tarpon fishing and cigar rolling.
That upper-crust bent is disturbing to Marc Smirnoff, the editor of another southern magazine, the Oxford American.
"Garden & Gun plays up the old South plantation fantasy — the Gone With the Wind myth — and they've just modernized it, put a price tag on it," he says. "And it's grotesque because it doesn't represent the entire South."
By not dealing head-on with politics, race or religion, Smirnoff says, Garden & Gun whitewashes the South.
In defense, DiBennedeto says Garden & Gun is not about black or white, but telling good stories.
"I don't think once you've read this magazine that you can say that it doesn't have soul or that it's just a glorified South," he says. "This magazine is about high and low."
Best-selling author Rick Bragg of Alabama, who writes for Garden & Gun, jokes that he represents the "lowbrow."
"Admittedly, I'm not going to get on my horse and go chase a fox. ... I'm probably not going to do a lot of things that they cover for a more elite South," he says, "but they also cover lost highways. They let me write about eating my first oyster."
Bragg also contributes to Oxford American. He sees value in both magazines as a forum for Southern storytellers.
"I do greatly love writing about where I'm from, and I think that's why they draw so many Southern writers. We like writing about Mama," he says.
And Garden & Gun's readers pick up on that sense of pride in place.