Birney Imes: Tripping the light fantastic in the world of magazines

October 29, 2011 10:35:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Chances are if you've ever heard or seen a news story about some development in the magazine world, you've heard the voice of Samir Husni. And if you work in that field, it's almost certain you know of Mr. Magazine, as he calls himself. 


About a month ago, Samir called and invited us to a conference on magazines he puts on at Ole Miss, where he teaches and is something of an institution. Mr. Magazine had kind things to say about "Catfish Alley," the magazine we started about a year ago. 


"I've just seen the third issue, and that's the best yet," he enthused. 


So Wednesday evening I'm on top of the University Club in Oxford talking to a group of tall and glamorous Texans about magazines. One is the publisher of Ft. Worth-based Western Horseman, circ. 187,000. I show him the latest issue of Catfish Alley, and he and his companions ooh and ahh over it. We're a diverse group. I'll meet a young black man from New Orleans, who looks like he stepped out of the pages of a Ralph Lauren ad from the 80s -- sweater tied around neck, bow tie and saddle oxfords. He says he intends to blog about fashion for the Oxford American (now published from Conway, Ark.). There's the editor of a Dutch fashion magazine and her husband and an Asian woman from Silicon Valley who would be speaking on "Surviving the realities of the Digital Age." That's just the sampling I bumped into. 


The night's featured speaker was Memphis native Sid Evans, who, two months ago, became an editor in Time Inc.'s magazine division overseeing "Southern Living" and "Cooking Light," among others. After breathing new life into "Field and Stream" -- oddly enough, based in New York -- Evans, an established figure in the New York magazine world, befuddled his friends and colleagues when he decamped for Charleston, S.C., to take the helm of a fledgling magazine named for a gay dance club. 


If you're familiar with "Garden and Gun," you'll understand why this wasn't such a bad career move. If not, I don't know if there's space here to explain. Let's just say the magazine is a wildly successful, beautifully conceived celebration of the South: its art, its food, its music and its characters. G&G, published six times a year, has a circulation of 210,000. 


About his favorite media, Mr. Magazine has written: "We all know that a magazine is more than ink on paper. It is an experience that is lived, felt and cherished. We also all know that ink and paper are manufactured in factories, but magazines and their brands are manufactured in readers' minds, one at a time." 


Evans explained how he has bonded with readers. To succeed in the South there are some things a magazine must do, he said.  


"Eat well and often," he says. "Southern food means something." We celebrate food in Catfish Alley. We featured Betty Land's cheese straws in the premier issue and the Phillips Boys' Brunswick Stew in the coming one. 


The rest of the world seems endlessly fascinated by the foods we Southerners eat, how we prepare it and where it comes from. They can't seem to get enough on the subject of grits, barbecue, greens, catfish; nor can we.  


Someone recently told me about a TV series based on grappling. "Hillbilly Handfishin'" premiered on Animal Planet in August. Can a series on grits be in the offing? 


If Stan Woodward's wonderful 1980 documentary on the subject, "It's Grits," is any guide, much of the country is like the Joe Pesci character in "My Cousin Vinny: "Sure I've heard of grits. I just never actually seen a grit before." 


"Magazines should pick real heroes," Evans said. That was one of the motivations for starting Catfish Alley. It is a way to celebrate the abundance of good work, much of it unheralded, we seem to have all around us. 


From cover stories on Leslie Frazier, Dan Penn and (soon to be released) Elayne Goodman, to lesser known but no less inspiring heroes like Greg Stewart, Dylan and Alyson Karges and Bessie Johnson, we have plenty to shout about. 


Another two items on Evans' list: "Make them proud" and "be soulful."  


We've tried to do both. On the eve of the release of issue four, we hope Catfish Alley readers agree. 


On the drive home from Oxford that night I passed at least eight to 10 deer grazing peaceably alongside the highway, fortunately all of them were staying put. At some point I tuned it to the state's public radio network. A segment called Mississippi Moments was in progress. A woman whose voice I didn't recognize was talking about Tombigbee fishermen displaying their catch on burlap sacks. She was describing the original Catfish Alley, a fitting coda for the evening. 


Birney Imes is the publisher of The Commercial Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected] 




Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.