by Diane Sussman
All Elsie Floriani really wanted was to give the Peninsula a nice magazine, a pretty magazine, a magazine that celebrated "everything positive and good about living here." "Here" refers to the creme de la creme of an already creamy area: all of Woodside, Atherton, Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills and Hillsborough, plus parts of Menlo Park (the western part), Palo Alto (the "old" part) and Los Altos.
What Floriani got instead was a tempest in a Wedgewood teacup.
Perhaps it was the magazine's name--Gentry--with its suggestion of baronets languishing in manors berating their inferiors and doting on their beagles.
Perhaps it was the content: the decorating style of 49er wives; who is giving what to whom for Valentine's Day ("Will Henry choose this 18-karat gold and platinum pendant with 3.34-carat tanzanite and diamond?"); voluptuous descriptions of the Coquille St. Jacques jus a l'armagnac in Bath (England, that is).
Perhaps it was the timing--1993--when the bubbly, high-living '80s had begun to look more like a long drunken binge than a beautiful 10-year party.
Whatever the reason, all Floriani knew was that no sooner had the April/May 1993 debut issue of the glossy bimonthly been delivered to people's mailboxes than the brouhaha had begun.
"As soon as we hit the air, people were offended," said Floriani, Gentry's founder and executive editor. "We got several calls from people insisting we come right over and pick it up."
An overwhelming majority came from Palo Alto. "They said we were tearing down trees."
Tearing down trees, catering to the rich, ignoring whole sectors of the community--accusing fingers pointed in all directions. "Gentry, for the greenblood, nouveau riche, self-appointed elite of the Bay Area catering to the European bluebloods," wrote one man. "Should you intend to send me a complimentary copy of your Gentry, I shall politely decline."
"Please go ahead and send me another copy of your magazine," wrote another man. "If there is something in it other than lunch menus with 49er coaches' wives, I may actually be interested."
The most stinging rebuke was a public one, from the San Jose Mercury News. "How exclusive is Gentry, a glossy new magazine for, by and about the Peninsula?" the story began. "So exclusive you won't find it on magazine racks, where the riffraff could get their hands on it . . . Other communities have exclusive publications delivered to their doors, too. But they have names like the Irvington Shopper and Potpourri."
(As a fine point, Gentry is sold on racks, but only at Draeger's Supermarket and Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. Newsstand copies sell for $4.)
The attacks ambushed Floriani, who hadn't considered that the name--or the content, or the circulation area--would provoke angry cries of snobbishness. "I suppose if we had to do it over again, we might not have called it Gentry," she sighed.
At the time, however (that is to say, a few weeks before the magazine opened) Gentry sounded better than the other options. For one thing, no one else was using it. For another, it wasn't twee. "We were getting closer and closer to opening our doors and we didn't have a name," recalled Floriani. "We thought about Peninsula Town & Country. We almost called it Flair. But nothing was right."
A thesaurus under pressure broke the impasse. "I sat down one Sunday morning and just started looking at words. I came across 'gentry' and it seemed such a nice, perfect name. I just didn't think of it as elitist."
If she didn't think of it then, she had to think of it after the magazine came out. "It was the worst of all possible feelings. I really just wanted to give something to the community that reflected the best about us."
One would have thought the community would have wanted its own magazine, especially one that focused on the brighter side of life. But in fact, the Peninsula hasn't been good at sustaining community magazines, known in the industry as city regionals. They come in a flash of four-color and go out in a sea of red ink.
But when Floriani was contemplating Gentry, the picture had a more gilded frame. The market for city regionals looked robust, if not a trifle overfed. "In retrospect, it was a terrible time to start a magazine," admits Floriani.
For starters, the area already had a glossy coffee table magazine, Peninsula magazine, which covered art, entertainment, dining, night life, shopping and the social scene--exactly the areas Floriani wanted Gentry to cover.
Peninsula was the most direct competition. But the area also had Sunset, Northern California Home & Garden, and Designers Illustrated covering the home, design and garden beats--another big component of Gentry fare.
On top of that there were all the local newspapers: the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Palo Alto Weekly, the Peninsula Times Tribune, the Country Almanac and the San Mateo Times, each covering arts, entertainment, home, garden, trends, personalities and so on.
Granted, newspapers aren't magazines. In newspapers, features must find space between news, police reports, sports, obituaries, editorials, letters and community announcements.
Peninsula magazine was another story.
Profitable and well-established, Peninsula covered the turf Gentry wanted to invade, namely the areas of Woodside, Atherton, Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills, Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
But it also included everybody else along the El Camino and beyond: East Palo Alto, Redwood City, San Jose, Half Moon Bay, South San Francisco, Mountain View, Belmont. Its circulation fluctuated between 30,000 and 50,000, about double that of Gentry.
"We were looking for a broader audience, much broader than Gentry," said David Gorn, Palo Alto resident and former editor of Peninsula magazine. "They have a certain niche. And certainly, that niche is part of our community. Our niche was the whole Peninsula."
Did Gentry really want to, or could it even afford to, go mano a mano with Peninsula? "It was really a serious question," said Floriani. "Was there room on the Peninsula for two magazines?"
There were larger questions as well, ones that went beyond the potential turf wars of two different city regionals.
Indeed, anyone reading tea leaves on the fate of city regionals would have beheld a soggy mess. Years before Floriani had given birth to Gentry, the Bay Area had already buried a slew of regional magazines, including San Francisco, The City, In Marin and Diablo.
More deaths were imminent. In 1993, Peninsula magazine and its spinoff magazine, Northern California Home & Garden, folded. So did the Peninsula Times Tribune.
Sloane Citron, former publisher of Peninsula and current publisher of Gentry, left Peninsula magazine a year before it folded. "Another company had bought it and we had-- what's the polite term?--irreconcilable differences," he explained. By the time Peninsula went under, he was safely in place at Gentry.
But insiders like Citron and Gorn are at a loss to explain why so many other city regionals and newspapers have come to the Bay Area only to expire in a few years. "This is one of the most affluent areas in the country," said Gorn. "More than that, it's one of the most literary areas in the country. There's no magazine now and no daily newspaper. It doesn't make sense."
Perhaps the publishers are to blame, muses Gorn. "People get into magazine publishing because they see the glamour and the high profit margins. Then the glamour wears off and they see how hard it is and they get out."
Perhaps the readers are to blame. "It's a difficult audience," said Gorn. "We have a strong sense of place, but we feel attached to San Francisco. We're identified, but we're not identified."
Perhaps the best explanation is a kind of publishing je ne sais quoi. "Publishing is like owning a restaurant," said Citron. "You can do everything right and still not succeed."
No one, however, faults the advertisers, who are filling Gentry's pages with lavish four-color spreads of beautiful interiors, rugs, appliances and real estate. "Advertisers like those strong demographics," admits Gorn. Citron agrees. "We are the market they like. They like active consumers."
Even better than active consumers are active moneyed consumers. Again, we fit the profile. According to the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), projected 1995 average income for San Mateo County households is $62,700. For Santa Clara County, the number is $57,913.
With numbers like those, what's not to like?
Gentry wasn't the only local magazine to recognize a sizable contingent of untapped advertisers.
The most recent entree into the field is Bay Style, a new quarterly fashion, beauty and shopping magazine produced in Los Altos. Bay Style, chockablock with "advertorials" and stories on plastic surgery, circulates 8,000 copies to beauty salons, spas, health clubs and hotels.
Bay Style Publisher Sherrie Shields poses the same question as Gorn. If this area is so well-endowed, why doesn't it have more magazines? "This area needs a fashion magazine," she said. "We are an upscale, cosmopolitan, boutique market. We need a high-end, quality fashion magazine. So far, I hate to say it, the quality of the media just hasn't been there."
Eternelle publisher Valerie Foster, who also publishes from Los Altos, also believes the area needs a high-quality magazine--but not a fashion magazine. Foster has aimed the quarterly Eternelle at the 35- to 55-year-old woman who thinks more about books, film, family, health or coping with divorce than what to wear. "We're into educating women and making them feel powerful and wonderful. We look at the kinds of things you would talk to your friends about," she said.
Eternelle distributes its 40,000 copies to subscribers, doctors' offices, beauty salons and individual women. Although Eternelle celebrated its one-year anniversary last month, it still "isn't making money," admits Foster.
"Right now I'm getting high from the response," she said.
Floriani simply felt the whole area needed a magazine. Peninsula magazine didn't concern her. She would have started Gentry regardless. Besides, at no time had she considered making Gentry a Peninsula clone.
"Personally, I never thought Peninsula magazine fit the community," she said. "We wanted a different scope. We wanted everything to do with design, the current talk, jewelry, weddings, charity events, what's going on at the golf clubs. We wanted weddings and engagements in color. Everyone likes those pretty pictures."
Well, not quite everyone. Certainly not those readers who blasted the magazine as soon as it came out.
But with admirable pluck, Floriani listened to the complaints, rolled up her sleeves and took a cold, hard look at the magazine. What she saw was way too much sugar. "The magazine had a lot of fluff," she admits. "We needed to get a little tougher."
"We learned a lot from the experience," agreed Citron. "We saw that to succeed the magazine needed to be significant from a journalistic point of view. We focused on significant features and less on society aspects."
Two years later, Floriani bristles when people use the words "fluff" and "Gentry" in the same sentence. "We don't just write about happy things," she said, her voice rising. "We did a story on being divorced on the Peninsula. We did a huge story on retirement. I am really proud of that. We do a lot of things that aren't fluff."
Still, Harper's or Atlantic it's not--nor is it intended to be. Gentry still lists weddings but no funerals, still features breezy looks at the homes of local gliteratti ("in the main barn, personal touches abound," states a story on Leezy Scully's ranch), still waxes rhapsodic over jewelry. "We don't want Gentry to be serious," Floriani reiterates. "It's a lifestyle magazine. A community magazine. But positive."
Giving up was never an option for Floriani. She had far too much invested to back out. She had rented offices in Menlo Park above Fresh Choice restaurant, hired a staff, sold her home--an 8,000-square-foot house on 1 1/2 acres in Atherton--and moved into a Menlo Park condominium to see the thing through. Exactly how much money did she put into the venture? "Do I have to say? I don't want to say," she said. "I will tell you, I'm spending my children's inheritance."
She had only one other investor, Citron, who admits he invested "more experience than money." The whole operation floated on Floriani's money.
She disregarded the warnings of friends. "Everyone was against it. They said there are three things you never do: Never open a restaurant. Never buy an airline. And never go into publishing."
But Floriani wanted this magazine. Fifty-five at the time, she was at a crossroads in her life. She had worked, raised three children, lived in Italy and volunteered for local charities. She needed something. "It was one of those life-changing moments," she recalled. "I could either have sunk into a hedonistic life or I could do this."
She had never written for publication, worked as an editor or run a publication. "I'm not a writer, and I'll never be a writer," she admits, although she writes a personal column for each issue. "Computers are still a shock to me."
She was, however, very well-connected, through schools, volunteering, work and sponsoring tennis tournaments. The photographs lining her walls prove the point: Floriani with Herb Caen, Floriani with Jerry Rice, Floriani with Bill Walsh.
She was, in her view, the quintessential local. "I've lived here since 1959," she said. "I am a mother of three children who went to school here. For 10 years, I ran women's tennis tournaments. I know people. If you want to know who our audience is, I am our audience."
At this point, she feels vindicated. Regardless of cries of being elitist and snobbish, Gentry is alive and 2 years old, and making money. "We're profitable," said Citron, tersely. "It took a while, but we're profitable."
Profitable and fecund. What was once just Gentry is now three Gentrys: Gentry, Gentry Design and Gentry After Hours.
Citron attributes part of the success to having streamlined the organization. The bare-bones staff consists of 12 people, including Floriani, Citron and editor Luanne Sanders Bradley.
There is no circulation or production department. Computer discs eliminated the need for production, while direct mail, all 20,000 copies, eliminated the need for circulation. "With no production and no circulation, you eliminate the time-consuming, expensive parts of producing a magazine," said Citron. "You can spend more on other things, like color."
Color is exactly where Floriani wants the money to go. "We could spend less on color, but we won't," she said. "Where else can advertisers have beautiful, four-color ads?"
It is precisely that extra flash and dazzle, believes Gorn, that could ultimately determine whether a magazine lives or dies here. "The ones that are successful have a targeted niche and they look good," he said. "When you start a magazine, you have to think about that coffee table."
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