The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Chapter 10

On a walking tour of Columbia, Missouri led by Ed Johnson, he showed me this wonderful sculpture in the public courtyard. As Ed told the story, the local children decided they wanted something more whimsical than the usual war memorial or historical monument.

I had few regrets losing Roadside’s west coast office given that I’d soon regain closer contact with my valued collaborator. The news was further sweetened when Teri asked if I would drive her car back from Oregon. I jumped at the opportunity to finally make my first cross-country road trip.

As summer waned, I still hadn’t heard anything from Ball Publishing. Accustomed by this time to expect little from such prospects, I had begun to draft letters announcing to the advertisers and readers that the magazine would likely fold. Friends by then had grown accustomed to my repeated vows to stop publishing “as soon as we’re done with this issue.” Yet, whenever I returned from the printer with a freshly printed magazine, I’d somehow forget the frustrations, headaches, and financial strains. The motivation to continue just wouldn’t die. I loved the magazine. By then, it had become such a part of my very identity, I feared I’d never give it up.

Logging, on average, about 250 miles per day, the cross-country trip filled the coffers with future story ideas. In almost every town, I discovered at least one “Roadside-Approved” attraction. The Dude Rancher Lodge in Billings, Montana, Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska, the Tip Top Drive-In in Lewiston, Idaho, and the “World’s Largest Catsup Bottle,” in Collinsville, Illinois, were but a small sampling dug up from the wondrous 3500 mile journey.

However, by the time I had crossed the Mississippi, the trip had begun to take its toll. Stopping for two days with a friend in Lincoln, Nebraska gave me a welcome respite from the road, but I still had half the country to cross. While visiting with my new friends in Collinsville, Illinois I checked my email for the first time in days, and read a message that would compel me to pick up the pace. John Martens had written saying that he wanted to meet and talk about Roadside. Meanwhile, I had a message on my answering machine from George Ball, requesting the same. Out on the road, I had only one more required stop – to visit with Ava Fox in Louisville, Kentucky, whose story appeared in our next issue. After that, I would hop the Interstate, and drive back as fast as possible. 

I had misgivings about whether this Midwesterner – or any Midwesterner for that matter – would fully understand and appreciate the mission of the magazine. Roadside’s editorial attitude generally reflected the mood of a busy, blue-collar diner: Direct, to the point, unabashed, and appreciative of the occasional sarcastic jab.

John Martens flew to Worcester at the beginning of October, 1998, and given that I still had no real office, met with me and Teri at my apartment. He arrived in the morning and we began our discussions in my living room. I had misgivings about whether this Midwesterner – or any Midwesterner for that matter – would fully understand and appreciate the mission of the magazine. Roadside’s editorial attitude generally reflected the mood of a busy, blue-collar diner: Direct, to the point, unabashed, and appreciative of the occasional sarcastic jab. While the rest of the country might find this rude and belligerent, we see it as part of our “charm.” To know us is to love us.

I feared that Ball Publishing kept its offices in some remote corporate park out near the interstate. I also feared that Martens lived in some similar subdivision. He had already admitted never visiting a real diner, though we’d take care of that at lunch.

Teri and I found Martens quite charming. His broad smile had a boyish quality and his laid-back manner put us both at ease. He listened earnestly as I described the magazine’s arc of progress and our vision for its future. He couldn’t have been more agreeable. After a couple of hours, we broke for lunch, where I had already decided to give him “the Charlie’s test.” I would eventually assess Worcester’s finest diner in a Countertop piece, summarizing, “you can have it your way at Charlie’s. Just don’t think you’re entitled to it.” If Martens didn’t like Charlie’s, he’d never understand Roadside.

Martens seemed to enjoy himself. Further, he insisted on stopping at a local bakery for an Italian pastry as we drove back to the house.

Before Martens left, he asked us to prepare a proposal for taking the magazine to the mainstream. He explained that he saw us handling the creative functions of Roadside, while Ball Publishing would assume the responsibilities of the business end. “You shouldn’t have to worry about that,” he assured us. “I would want you to concentrate on content.”

Martens seemed to offer Roadside a financial investment. We didn’t get into any discussion about an outright sale of the business or moving it to Ball Publishing’s headquarters in Batavia, Illinois. In fact, he indicated he would almost prefer to see the editorial functions remain in Worcester or somewhere in the Northeast. In other words, Martens proposed the best possible scenario for us. I would finally be free of those tasks that I enjoyed the least while concentrating all my time on developing the content. Martens’ enthusiasm for the idea seemed genuine to both of us. When he drove completely out of sight and earshot, Teri and I literally jumped for joy.

Yet, we still had to complete issue 27 of the magazine, already extremely late. Once published, we turned our attention to this proposal. I took a rough draft of a business plan I had begun to develop two years earlier, retooling it for the reality proposed by Martens, and by the end of October sent it to Batavia.

Then, again, we waited. One year passed into the next and still no word from Martens. Always busy working on the next issue, my weeks seamlessly passed, and by the time I finally got around to calling Martens, it was March, 1999.

“I sent your proposal off to George,” Martens informed me. “You should probably give him a call.”

Though a little puzzled by the turn of events, I nevertheless called Mr. Ball at the Burpee office.

“Yes, John sent me your plan,” Mr. Ball told me. “But I’m afraid I’m a little confused by it.”

“Well,” I replied, “John had asked us to draft a proposal for mainstreaming the magazine. That’s what we did.”

“Oh, I see. Well, that’s not what I wanted him to do.”

At this point, I almost found myself at a loss for words. I struggled to keep the conversation alive. “Uh, okay. Then what would you like us to do, George?”

He began to ask me questions about the magazine and its prospects, and I again explained that Roadside’s greatest failing thus far had been its inability to reach its market. We needed capital to fund a marketing effort that would attract more subscribers, as well as the resources to properly staff the enterprise and finally put the magazine on a regular schedule. Mr. Ball initially sounded distant during this exchange, but he suggested that we finally meet.

In early April, 1999, I laid eyes on George Ball for the first time. His deep, resonant telephone voice suggested a man of considerable stature and polish. However, I had heard about Mr. Ball’s eccentric nature initially from both Teri and from Martens, then eventually from anyone else who knew him, which included a lack of concern for his own appearance. Mr. Ball was not, as they say, a slave to fashion. Though of considerable means, he spent little of it on his wardrobe or grooming.

True to the rumors, he stepped into the small lobby at Burpee draped in a well-worn, ill-fitting pinstripe suit and a faded, pink oxford shirt with a frayed, stained collar. Standing at just about six feet, Mr. Ball cut a portly figure atop which hung a round, doughy face inset with intense, searching eyes. He resembled a grayer John Lovitz, but with the voice of a PBS narrator. He offered his large hand and introduced himself. “I’m George Ball. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

After a tour of the Burpee office and plant, we sat down to discuss the magazine, largely retracing the paths of our previous conversations, and again just as it seemed I had lost his interest, I made my final pitch.

“Mr. Ball, I wrote to you last year thinking that you might be able to do something with the magazine. I know that it has enormous potential to be something much larger than it is. If you don’t think there’s anything you can do, then perhaps you might know someone who can.”

He then looked at me with renewed interest. His eyes, dull and distant up to that point, suddenly lit up again.

“Okay. Here’s what you do. Get in touch with your attorney, and have him assess the value of the magazine. When you have that, let’s get together again, and we’ll go from there.”

My attorney? I thought. I don’t even have an accountant for my taxes!

This wasn’t the scenario I had envisioned when I came to Warminster, but it nonetheless looked like progress. We shook hands again, and I was on my way. How much was my magazine worth, I wondered? After almost a decade in the trenches, it seemed that success and solvency were finally within reach. Best of all, Roadside might finally get a shot at the big time.

Next time: The deal closes.


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