WHAT REALLY MATTERS by Elaine Durbach
Reflecting on a storied 30 years
We could have been very confused. For my husband and me, coming from Park Slope and knowing only one family in the SOMA community, almost everything was baffling. And then this publication arrived in our mailbox – a big, unglossy yet very inviting publication, Maplewood Matters. It opened the door to people and places and services. And all of a sudden, we had a way forward.
That – or rather this – publication, now Matters Magazine, is still providing that kind of welcome to newcomers and old-timers alike. Karen Duncan, who launched it in 1990, sold it in 2017 to Ellen Donker, in a seemingly seamless transition. Duncan and her husband, Doug, moved to Savannah, GA, but she has stayed in touch.
“Knowing Ellen was going to take over was a great satisfaction,” Duncan says, “knowing that after 27 years of building Matters the legacy would continue.”
Donker was totally new to magazine editing, but then so was Duncan when she started Maplewood Matters. What the two women shared, aside from business savvy and a willingness to learn, was a confidence in the formula: upbeat stories about the community and a venue for local advertisers to reach readers.
Duncan describes the magazine’s beginning as a vision with deep roots. “As a child, advertising always fascinated me,” she declares. As an adult, she taught briefly but followed her dream to the Mecca of fashion advertising, Manhattan.
She and her husband moved to Maplewood in 1980. Commuting into the city, she made friends and shared dreams with other women. The camaraderie was fun, but they found the daily travel a grind, and there was much talk about starting their own ventures. This was before the introduction of Midtown Direct, and when the PATH train’s wicker seats that used to snag their nylons. “We had to carry spare sets of pantyhose!” she recalls.
In 1987, Duncan launched her own advertising agency, Visual Impact Advertising, and began helping her friends establish their businesses. She designed logos and postcard campaigns (“Remember, there was no Internet yet,” she points out) and she tried to pitch stories about them to the News-Record. When the paper wouldn’t bite, she started a newsletter with support from the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce. And the newsletter grew into a magazine.
“Writing was more of an avocation,” Duncan admits. “I think curiosity fueled my early interest for the magazine. There are endless interesting people with stories waiting to be told.”
At the start, financing was a struggle, coming up with the cash for an office, and printing, and distribution. “This is always the story of the chicken or the egg,” she says. “We needed advertisers and the advertisers needed [their ads] distributed.”
Selling the publication through a news agent or seeking subscriptions wasn’t going to meet her goals, but Duncan had a plan. “Delivering to every household in Maplewood in the mail, and not on the driveways, was vital to me: that the distribution be to every household counted in 07040 and then in 07079. Always has been, and was when Ellen took over, and still is.”
While, predictably, there were doubters, Duncan had her champions from the start, including – fortunately – her husband. “Doug has been and still is my best friend and huge support to my endeavors,” she says. The Chamber remained a supporter too. And advertisers followed. “The larger concept was embraced by my female clients,” Duncan says. They included people like art dealer Robin Hutchins, the first woman Maplewood Chamber president, real estate agent Carol Gilligan, and retailers Lena Zajac, Ellen Davenport, and Debbie Belfatto.
Hutchins had her gallery where Words Bookstore is now. Though she subsequently retired to New Mexico, she has remained a loyal reader and supporter. She recalls how Duncan inspired others with her vision. “Karen had tremendous energy and a wonderful personality. She likes people and people like her. She would say, ‘What you’re doing should be known, and you’ll be helping the community.’ And when she expanded it beyond Maplewood, she was able to make everyone feel local, to knit all these communities together.”
Duncan’s first office was at 6½ Highland Place, where she worked with one staff member, Aida Jones. Later they moved to 9 Highland Place and in 1994 Rene Conlon came on board. Says Duncan, “They were both highly creative, organized and believed passionately in the vision.” Conlon stayed with her for 20 years, becoming managing director and handling bookkeeping, ad sales and administration. She too has moved down South, settling in Charleston, SC, but is still active with the magazine.
“Karen was so warm and welcoming to our kids," Conlon recalls. “If we didn’t have child-care, we’d bring them in to the office with us.” That made for an atmosphere, she says, that attracted smart, talented people. Leslie Gilman, who has been with Matters Magazine for 18 years, concurs. She says, "Not only was Jared [Gilman's son] the unofficial mascot of weekly sales meetings, but he was the first boy to ever be featured on a Matters cover."
Initially, the publication was slender, and black and white. Growth came gradually. Duncan says, “Watching the page count grow was exciting and when we finally went to all color [in 1995] it was equally exciting.” The next big step came in 1999 when she added South Orange to her circulation. The name was changed, dropping the Maplewood part. Duncan was thrilled, given her attachment to both towns. “I had the unique position of having lived in Maplewood for 26 years and South Orange for 11.”
Regina Romanaux first met Duncan in a fiction writing class through the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School in the early 2000s, and they became friends. Their work collaboration began in 2003, with Romanaux writing an essay for the Final Matters page. Duncan invited her to become an editor of the magazine, and she held that position for about five years.
“We would take a great big exhale each time we put an edition ‘to bed,’” Romanaux says. “And then we were on to the next stories to develop, write, photograph and publish. It was an enormous amount of fun and I became a better writer through the experience.”
Like other Matters alumnae, Romanaux remembers its team spirit. “Karen was always cooking up something for us to do as a team,” she says. “One particular memory involved pole dancing lessons. I wasn’t very good at it, but we certainly had a spectacular night together.”
Store owner Lena Zajac reveled in the collegiality that surrounded Matters. A neighbor and commuting friend of Duncan’s, she became one of the agency’s first clients when she opened her women’s fashion store, Lena Roberts, at 165 Maplewood Avenue, and one of the magazine’s first advertisers. Along with other owners, as Zajac put it, they tapped their sophisticated city skills to promote their small-town, neighborly businesses. That included creating a collaborative mailing list, and working together to organize sidewalk sales and Thursday shopping nights and festive celebrations. “We had a great time,” Zajac says.
Of course, there were rough patches. As the economy rose and fell, keeping the magazine afloat took creativity. But Duncan is supremely resilient. She says, “Most who know me know I thrive on change and plowing through. I don’t like status quo and strove to continually adjust and move in different directions.”
And even the tough times had their shine. Looking back, Duncan recalled Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when downed trees knocked out power across the region. “Our tiny Maplewood Village office got power back on day two, so we had all our husbands and friends come set up their tables in our office. It was a remarkable two weeks of truly supporting each other. While that storm was bad, we made the most of it, and I have very fond memories of that crazy time.”
As pleasurable as she found it, at some point, Duncan knew she would yield the reins of Matters. “I knew when my husband was going to retire to the day, so that was always my goal. I planned for nearly a decade before. We have no family in New Jersey and we wanted an adventure in the later part of our lives.” They settled in a coastal community she describes as vibrant and exciting. “I play a lot of golf. I garden. I swim. I am
part of a few book clubs and I’m a volunteer for the Savannah Book Festival. I entertain, as we are a nice destination for many to visit. Savannah history is fascinating, and I enjoy being part of this town. My husband and I continue to travel when we can.”
As for the magazine, while it is also available online, Duncan is confident the home-delivery model she insisted on 30 years ago will persist. “I believe print media will have its place,” she says. “People love to feel something in their hands; something to touch and read. The printed word is still vital to a vibrant intellectual setting.”
Elaine Durbach is a Maplewood-based writer. She brought out her first novel last year, Roundabout, and is currently finishing a sequel, LAF – Life After Felix.