To those in the trade, commercial magazines are known as books. A few years back, I wrote of one long-lost example called Night and Day—England’s short-lived answer to The New Yorker—which flared to life in 1937 and flamed out six months later. Once upon a time I edited and owned part of another magazine, Chicago Times, which launched exactly fifty years after Night and Day and survived for three years. Cleaning out my office in town a few weeks ago, I came upon a single copy of yet another lost magazine, TRIPS. I only came across a single copy because TRIPS published just one solitary issue in 1988 and then vanished. Small commercial magazines with aspirations of intellectual seriousness yet depending on the precarious financial tripod of investors, subscribers, and advertisers are, I can testify, risky business.
In their absence, they can still be valuable for providing a fixed picture of a cultural moment—London in the late Thirties, Chicago in the late Eighties. TRIPS was a travel magazine, and though travel writing is seldom considered near the high end of the literary mill, TRIPS too is worth recalling because of its unconventional attitude toward place and travel, an attitude that was rare at the time and, in much of travel publishing, still is. It was the brainchild of the California entrepreneurs Mel and Patricia Ziegler, conjurors in 1978 of the safari- and travel-clothing store the world came to know as Banana Republic. Their two-location start-up in Marin County, initially stocked with military surplus clothing acquired on the cheap, was a surprise hit, and in five years the Zieglers sold their operation to Gap Incorporated. Gap expanded Banana Republic across the country, and the Zieglers stayed on to run things until 1988, the same year they launched TRIPS as a piggybacking publication of the store. Then the wheel turned again, and copycat competition gathered. Growth stalled. New Gap management, in the person of the corporate-turnaround artist Mickey Drexler, set about making cuts and, in the Zieglers’ eyes, diluting the brand. Citing “fundamental creative and cultural differences” with Drexler, the founders decamped for other adventures. The second issue of TRIPS was ready to print when Drexler pulled the plug.
TRIPS entered the magazine morgue without much of a chance to prove itself. Copies of that lone first issue are hard to come by. I acquired mine in 1988 from a promotional stack in the Banana Republic store on North State Street in Chicago’s Loop, a couple of blocks from the offices of Chicago Times on Michigan Avenue. It was an oddly sized quarterly that looked and—at 160 pages—felt like a journal, though there the resemblance ended. As we liked to say in those days, it possessed a powerful “editorial vision” and was a serious magazine to which, its proprietors bet, subscribers at $10 a year and advertisers in their multitudes would flock. Judging from that first and only issue, with its respectable advertising-to-editorial ratio and eclectic mix of A-list advertising spreads from the likes of AT&T, United Airlines, Tanqueray, BMW, and Volvo, plus ads for smaller-fry travel/adventure companies, the Zieglers may well have bet correctly. We shall never know. We can know, however, the sort of editorial product Ziegler had in mind with which to sell these magazines, and it was not modest.
Such commercial magazines sell themselves with how they look and how they read. Editor-in-chief Ziegler didn’t fool around in either department. For the role of art director he recruited Roger Black, then a marquee name boasting designs or re-designs of The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and Esquire in his portfolio. And in the first issue of TRIPS, Black once again showed how it was done. The cover, illustrated by the Mexican caricaturist Abel Quezada (who also contributed a humorous graphic about Oakland, reading: “In San Francisco you’re a tourist, but cross the bridge to Oakland and you’re an explorer!”), telegraphed the tone of the magazine’s content without literally illustrating any of it. Like good covers everywhere, it was arresting enough to make you pick it up off the newsstand or look twice when it came in the mail. Quezada’s scene is framed within a circle, its subjects in soft focus, as if we were looking through a spyglass. Through that spyglass, we see a beach with a man playing a grand piano, another astride an elephant, a native woman perched demurely on a settee, an ocean liner on the horizon, a periscope protruding from the deep, and, in the foreground, a quizzical looking traveler clad in a beret and a suit jacket complete with a pocket square (not exactly the kind of fashion Banana Republic peddled in their stores). And, of course, there are palm trees. With decorative art and illustration, hand-colored photography, clever maps, and classy typography, Black managed the trick of making a magazine fairly stuffed with content feel positively breezy.
The content was writerly and witty and included long-form features. As Ziegler put it a little breathlessly in his welcome note, the aim was “to capture raw experience, that moment of recognition that permanently alters the way a traveler sees the world.” At least readers could not complain about the range. Four professional journalists, enjoying, I suspect, good expense accounts, anchored the inaugural issue. Charlie Haas toured Tonga, “a small country occupied by some very large people,” and bicycled about with Tāufa‘āhau Tupou IV, the last Polynesian monarch. Marguerite Del Giudice visited the not terribly welcoming Hawaiian island of Ni’ihau, largely unknown to tourists and given over to sugarcane and cattle raising, “a secret place, dry as Death Valley, where the true culture of aloha—the sacred exchange of breath, the very essence of God—has gone to save itself, or to die.” Mark Jacobson (no relation) ventured to then-apartheid South Africa. Fearful of succumbing to clichés, Jacobson laments the writer who “with pretentions looks at apartheid for three or four weeks, works up impressions, makes some sweepingly dim statements crammed with the same moldy outrage.” Jacobson did considerably better than that, though he did get the future wrong (like a lot of people did): “South Africa was eating me alive. I was thinking they might as well nuke the place, avoid the long, drawn-out siege. The whites were never going to give up.” Six years later, they did just that. Meanwhile, Lewis Grossberger experienced his own culture shock behind the Iron Curtain in communist Bulgaria. On a lighter note, his destination was the National Museum of Humor and Satire (a real place) where a Tootsie-lookalike culture-crat explained to him that the museum was an official cultural institution accredited by the state, dedicated to “recognizing and promoting humorous activities that will further the search for world peace.” That, at least, was funny.
If none of it quite hit the pitch of Paddy Leigh Fermor or Jan Morris, it was at least getting close. One piece, however, was gold: a reminiscence by the novelist Richard Ford of living with his grandparents in a hotel in 1950s Little Rock, “Accommodations.” Ford, who rightly enjoys man-of-letters status, is still very much at it—his eighth novel, Be Mine, was published this spring. In 1988 he was still starting out, having received his first acclaim just the year before for a short-story collection. “Accommodations” was less a piece of travel writing than it was a piece of place writing, and more the fruit of a literary than journalistic sensibility. You wanted to lean back and settle in while reading him, whereas the journalists populating the rest of the pages kept you on the edge of your seat. The hotel was called the Marion, and in the Fifties it was the poshest place in a “blowsy” town on a slow river, “a hotel for conventioneers and pols, salesmen and late-night party-givers.” There was a fishpond in the lobby and there were escritoires on the mezzanine; you were greeted by “a jet-black marble front desk, green leather couches, green carpets, [and] bellboys with green twill uniforms and short memories.” Ford’s grandfather, who was a sort of majordomo for the Marion’s owner and whose job was simply to be around and be of service, was “a fatty” always carrying a money clip and change in his pockets. He shot pool and quail, and he sat every morning in a chair “in his underwear, and before lacing his shoes, prayed out loud for his job, thanked God for loyal employees, for his good boss and for the trust he felt he had.” To Ford, thirty years later, this ritual seemed prudent. “To me, he was the exotic brought to common earth, and I loved him. I could think different of him now, see him through new eyes, revise history, take a narrower, latter-day view. But why?” Why indeed.
One sort of travel writing we read merely for easy information about a place and its vendors. Another sort we read for vicarious experience because we are all ignorant of so much. TRIPS was the latter sort, and it was a sadly short trip. Even today, when more people seem to be going everywhere all the time, more people yet armchair travel from home. And, I speculate, fewer and fewer of them actually read in that armchair. As countless television shows attest, travel, like cooking, has proven a natural fit for the video age. But there has been a loss here. Watching the screen requires nothing of us but our eyeballs and a half hour of our time during which we can also be doing something else—low investment, low reward. Reading about travel and faraway places, meanwhile, takes at least a modicum of intellectual effort and rewards us in proportion to our preparation and desire to know. “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him,” wrote Samuel Johnson back in the eighteenth century when “the Indies” evoked the height of exoticism. (Johnson obviously did not know about Little Rock.) He went on: “So it is with traveling; a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.” Two hundred years later, in the last pre-digital moment before travel became further commodified and mostly digitized, TRIPS tried to show us the world, fresh and filled with wealth, through great writing and design, with wonder, not apology. It might have been too late even in 1988, but it was a noble attempt. I miss the second issue.