It’s a hive of activity outside 817 W. Broad St. Pedestrians squeeze through a shortened sidewalk while men in hard hats work furiously. There’s a buzz inside, too, where Broad Street magazine gets made. Richmond’s literary scene is growing alongside other art forms, and Broad Street crams this energy into a slim, picture-packed profile.
Greg Weatherford, a founding adviser, says the biannual magazine has a secret superpower. “The Internet only gets some things right,” he says. “It’s good at creating a temporary and shared experience, but not so great at creating happy accidents.”
That’s where Broad Street comes in, says Weatherford, a former reporter and editor at Style. “You can leave it on a coffee table for someone to stumble upon. It’s like leaving behind a portal into a little world.”
This portal came into existence in summer 2013, calling itself “a new magazine for true stories.” Virginia Commonwealth University donated a two-year, $5,000 pilot grant, and now the magazine must eke out funds from student fees that cover student publications. But Broad Street shows no sign of slowing down. Hundreds of writers submit each month, and students from all disciplines flock in for professional experience.
It helps that Broad Street has a star editorial director, Susann Cokal. The New York Times Book Review praised Cokal’s novel, “Kingdom of Little Wounds,” as “almost de Sadean in its rich, sumptuous details.” In person, Cokal is soft-spoken but no less evocative.
“We wanted to create a beautiful artifact to hold, yet also something with informative significance,” she says. To do that, Broad Street often juxtaposes reporting with suggestive images. Readers fill in the gaps, creating new meanings. Each issue has a theme, like Bedeviled or Dangerous Territory.
Cokal’s connections help with creating this food for thought. Best-selling memoirist Jeanette Winterson has appeared on the page, and so has Tony-winner Paloma Young. Broad Street also may hold the somewhat dour title of having published Alan Cheuse’s last piece — the popular NPR book critic died in July.
It all helps to give the magazine a little edge and visibility. Small bookstores from California to New York serve as distributors, and subscriptions are available.
But Weatherford and Cokal are adamant in saying that Broad Street couldn’t survive without Richmond. That’s not only because locals submit unique writings, too, such as restaurateur Kendra Feather. It’s also because of the hard-working students behind the magazine who work for free.
Matt Phipps, the former lead editor, says he left only because his experience at the magazine attracted a new job. He now works for Asymptote, a journal focusing on literature in translation. The lead editor before him, Chad Luibl, also left after snagging a job at Janklow & Nesbit, the powerhouse literary agency behind Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson.
“There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a glossy stack of brand-new magazines,” says Phipps, reflecting on his time with Broad Street editors and creative director Tyler Darden.
Weatherford is full of facts and figures about the resurgence of print magazines. Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to call it the resilience of print. In July, the Pew Research Center reported that 91 percent of American adults have read a print magazine in the last six months. That’s compared with 85 percent of American adults who cruise the information superhighway.
“There’s a sense of warmth to print,” says Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore and a local distributor of Broad Street. She adds that authors are even turning down self-publishing services from Amazon, in favor of smaller ventures that offer more control.
Weatherford says Fidelity Printers in Sandston, a family shop, creates about 800 copies of Broad Street per issue. He says most literary magazines do modest runs, from 250 to 1,000 issues. The Believer, founded by Dave Eggers in 2003, is considered an indie success story but still produces only 15,000 monthly issues through various small printers. That magazine, a voracious culture vulture like Broad Street, also strives for eye-catching designs.
In Broad Street’s spring issue, there’s a photo essay by John Moser with several pullouts and unfolding panoramas. Moser shoots forest landscapes that appear to be symmetrical. Weatherford describes the pictures as “pagan churches” — a special effect that doesn’t translate well online.
For the same issue, Glenn Sheppard contributed a 6,000-word manifesto about Peruvian tribesmen blowing raw tobacco powder up his nose. “Normally, that piece would’ve been chopped down and buried in an anthropological journal,” Cokal says. “It’s so fascinating to bring these kinds of stories to the world.”
“Broad Street is a beautiful, well-presented and well-written publication,” says Dale Brumfield, a Style contributor, author of “Richmond Independent Press” and founder of Throttle magazine. “But I personally cannot imagine starting up a glossy periodical in this city today. While a strong online presence is desirable, it leaches away newsstand sales.”
Brumfield calculates that the office space donated by the university, along with the student staff, give Broad Street some room to bet on print. But with a website that’s updated sparingly, the editors are betting big, indeed.
“We want you to put this magazine in your moving boxes,” says Cokal, who’s originally from New Mexico and California. Cokal keeps several literary souvenirs — even those that have been defiled by her cats.
“That’s my goal for Broad Street,” she says, laughing. “To have readers hold onto it, even if it’s been peed on by a cat.” S