The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Marjorie and I near the end of the 3000 mile road trip in the Higland Park Diner in Rochester, NY. Though thoroughly stuffed from visits to several previous diners, I couldn't resist the diner's apple pie. To this day, I've had none better.

Chapter 4

I've long credited the people who've I met through the magazine as the best part of publishing. For the most part, the folks who took to the magazine did so for the same reasons they love diners while fretting about their futures. They valued the community fostered by both their favorite diners and by the magazine. Roadside inspired heaping helpings of goodwill from not only the readers, but from future contributors. Photographers literally showed up on our doorstep, granting carte blanche to their portfolios. Writers generously penned stories for little more than the opportunity to see their byline in the magazine. I later referred to this as “paying in pie.” Though we rarely paid for an article, we reimbursed people for modest expenses or knew that certain diners would probably pick up the tab for their meals.

The Yankee article stuffed our mailbox for three months after publication, barely allowing us time to respond to them all. Still on that high, articles in the Boston Globe and finally a prominent blurb in Modern Maturity kept those letters and postcards coming. The Modern Maturity mention produced a larger response than Yankee, bringing, among many others, our good friend Mario Monti into our orbit.

Though many letters went unanswered, they provided us with a tremendous insight into the minds of our readers. Since that time, I've long maintained that our readers were our best resource. With so little money in the bank and so few people actually materially involved in the operation, we depended upon the eyes and ears of those out there on the back roads and Main Streets. We began to hear from people from all kinds of backgrounds, but for the most part, they seemed older, more settled, and concerned about the direction of our commercial development. Not a few people wrote in with stories of their favorite diners, or of the first time their fathers brought them to a diner and sat them at the counter. They fondly remembered the spinning stools, the kind-hearted grillman, the mom-like waitress, and the smells, sounds, and people that brought the places to life. And they all wondered what had happened. Where are all the diners now?

To try to answer that question, we published the first Diner-Finder Deluxe of Massachusetts in 1991. Roadside debuted with a Massachusetts map locating only about 40 diners. In our research, assisted by Larry Cultrera and Richard Gutman, we realized that the state actually had 140. Though at first, that seemed like an ample number, in perusing Richard's extensive archive of slides taken in the 1960s and 1970s, I realized we lost many more to “progress”. Cities like Worcester, which at that time had 16 diners within its city limits, had several more only ten years before. Springfield, another sizable town in the state, now has only one, but in the diner heyday probably had closer to at least a dozen. Indeed, every town with any significant industrial activity or downtown had at least one diner.

In a later discussion with the former owner of Ann's Diner in Salisbury, we heard the tale of how in 1949 he and his father would travel from Salisbury to Worcester almost weekly along Route 110 to watch the progress of the diner's construction. “And in just about every town along the way," he said, "there was a diner."

The aficionado salivates conjuring those images. The sight of all those beautiful porcelain ladies beckoning to the hungry traveler like benevolent sirens sends tingles up the spine, particularly when one thinks of what has replaced them.

The Diner Finder Deluxe sold well, but again, we printed too many. A large number of the 5000 ultimately ended up in recycling. The situation also pointed to the problem of facilities. The world of desktop publishing made it exponentially easier for any shmoe to put out a newsletter, tract, or magazine. Me and my Macintosh SE/30 did the work of at least five people in the days of cut-and-paste, but the end result still required storage.

The first office of Roadside at 29 Hunt Street. One reader had hoped that we were working out of a giant coffee cup, and begged me not to tell him otherwise.

When the issue of the magazine came off the press, only about a third immediately shipped directly to the diners that distributed. The bulk came back to the house. Issue 7 came back to the house on two pallets and stacked nearly five feet high. Add to that the remainder of the previous issues and now the Diner Finder Deluxe. At that stage, Roadside defined the term “cottage industry,” but the excitement of receiving letters, phone calls, and subscription checks from across the country fueled our motivation.

In that first full year of publication, I received the first of several post cards from Teri Dunn, who with her husband, Shawn, took regular road trips out across the back roads of the country. They loved diners, brewpubs, trains, and baseball among other things. The spirit between them and Roadside couldn’t get more kindred. With each post card or letter, she would sign off, “and if there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.” Given that she worked as an associate editor for a “real” magazine, Horticulture Magazine, I filed this offer in a safe place in my mind. Her employment there would later have implications for the future of Roadside beyond anything I could possibly expect.

At the end of 1991, we published the issue that paid loving homage to the diner waitress entitled, “What’ll it be, Hon?” featuring four waitresses who made an impression on our travels. I’m sorry to say that we’ve since lost touch with two of those waitresses, but one, Martha Quinn, appreared on another cover of the magazine in 1998 as part of our feature on the work of Robert Williams and his book of diner-related photographs. As far as we know, you can still find Marie behind the counter at the Capitol Diner in Lynn, Mass.

That issue was also the last that listed Marjorie as the magazine’s editor. It was no secret to many of our readers that Marjorie and I shared a personal relationship as well as a professional. I often wonder now how I could have started this thing without her. Yet, in the beginning of 1992, we parted ways, and of my own doing, I found myself on my own with the magazine. Though Marjorie contributed relatively little in terms of actual editorial content, she had invested a great deal in moral and often material support into this enterprise. The importance of this contribution could hardly be underestimated. Nevertheless, deed was done, and I prepared to face the consequences.

The old cliché tells of doors opening when others close, and as if scripted, I received a call not two weeks later from someone named Craig Sellers who lived in New York and worked as an attorney on Wall Street, offering to get involved with my efforts to expand the magazine. He and an associate, Guy Nicolucci, had previously planned to launch a similar type of publication when they heard of Roadside. Craig proposed to take over ad sales and Guy, an assistant editor at Us Magazine (part of the Rolling Stone empire) would take over the editorship. I would remain as publisher and art director, and the three of us would negotiate a formal partnership.

I agreed in principle to the arrangement, with the three of us making plans to meet for the first time in New York City at the Munson Diner.

If the irony of the timing hadn’t struck hard enough, Craig also revealed that he and Marjorie attended the same college, graduating together in 1984.