Thursday, August 29, 2013

Embryonic Walrus magazine, now 10, got its start at Dooney's cafe

The late Dooney's 
As The Walrus magazine celebrates (well it might) its 10th anniversary with a special perfect-bound September issue and a $10 cover price, some of us who were involved even before it launched, recall the gestation took place largely at the sometimes-sticky little tables of Dooney's in the Annex (see right), now long gone. It was favoured because it  had a side patio where the principals could smoke and because its originator and co-founder David Berlin lived  just a couple of blocks away. (This was before the magazine rented the Duncan Street premises it now occupies.) 
10th anniversary issue

The original idea was far from what it is now; in fact the early gatherers who hashed over the idea would hardly recognize it. Originally, it was that it would be more like The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and would resolutely eschew perennial "whither Canada" stories. The name of the magazine started as a joke because no one could think up a name. Much of the early buzz  in the business was around the idea that it was not only going to be a new market for long-form journalism, but that it intended to pay at the top of that market; this is not quite how it worked out, mind you. Various talented individuals dropped in and stayed...or left...and the makeup of the planning group ebbed and flowed, getting fairly fuzzy around the edges but solid at its core.

There were 15 or 16 runs at a financial model, but everyone knew that if the magazine was going to actually publish it was because it was through heavy subsidization -- to the tune of $1 million a year for five years --  by the family-run Chawkers Foundation and the scion of that family, Ken Alexander. The truth was that while there was a vision and a belief in the need for a writerly publication, early on the enterprise had the feel of an Andy Hardy movie (you know, we can use my dad's barn, my mom can sew the costumes...). It gave new definition to the term "work in progress". 

Whatever long-term view about how The Walrus would eventually be managed or governed could change from one meeting to the next and sometimes between the beginning of lunch and the end. The miracle was that it pretty much all started with some plotting at the little tables of Dooney's and went from there. Since then it has evolved into the widely admired, professionally run, award-winning thing we see today.

Congratulations to everyone who contributed to its first ten years. 

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