Celebrating 20 Years of Downhome
June of this year marks the 20th anniversary of Downhome. Who would have thought that this magazine, which was first put together in the living room of a 900-square-foot house in Brampton, Ontario, would become the biggest magazine published in Atlantic Canada? Certainly not me. I had some visions of where I wanted to go with this magazine when we first launched it as the Downhomer, but I had no idea where it would take me.
Twenty years ago, Newfoundland and Labrador was considered an inferior province, not only by Canadians from the mainland, but by those from this province as well. The stigma was so great that we Newfoundlanders wouldn't even buy things produced here at home. I felt people would feel the same way about a magazine, so we started out as a free publication, hoping we could sell enough advertising to pay for printing and other costs.
I never expected to make money on the magazine. My hope was to bring in enough to cover costs because when we couldn't, the difference came out of my pocket.
Of course, one way to meet costs is to keep expenditures down. For that I enlisted volunteers. Thank God for every one of them. Downhome would not exist today without them. Our volunteers delivered the magazine to places where Newfoundlanders might frequent. All Newfoundland stores in the Toronto area carried Downhomer, as did many other places run by Newfoundlanders, such a service stations and restaurants.
Volunteers, including myself, would put magazines beside certain ATMs on Friday night after the banks closed. I never asked the banks for permission, I just put them there. In life I've always found it easier to get forgiveness than ask for permission. I did get letters from some banks, asking me to "cease and desist," which I did. Not so much because they asked me to, but because I figured that any location that couldn't go through 100 magazines on a weekend was not a good distribution point. Most ATMs did go through 100, so I never heard from those banks, management never knew Downhomer was even there. At the time, no bank would give me a business loan for this magazine. But they helped anyway, even if they didn't know it. God bless them, too.
Among the other volunteers were the writers. Our writers are paid now, but back then they did it for nothing.
My wife at the time, Sandra, quit a good paying job to work more than 80 hours a week in what used to be her living room, for nothing. She put more time into the magazine than me back then because I was a police officer for 40 hours a week, and had to spend many off-duty hours at court. Back in February 1988, when I suggested to her that we do this magazine, I don't think she realized how much work what it would take. But Sandra is a great administrator and tireless worker. This magazine wouldn't have made it without her efforts.
Our kitchen table became our advertising sales desk where I conducted business, sometimes in a housecoat and sometimes in a police uniform, if I was close to going on duty or had just gotten off. The kitchen was also the mailroom, where we licked several hundred stamps for subscriptions every month.
Our warehouse and shipping area was the front lawn. This is where pallets, piled high with magazines, were covered with tarpaulins until I could get them boxed and shipped to our distributors across Canada.
I hoped that the magazine would become a networking tool for Newfoundlanders everywhere, not just the ones living in the Toronto area. So when someone called up to subscribe in other parts of Canada I tried to talk them into distributing it in their area.
One of the things I always made sure of was that the content reflected the achievements and positive stories of Newfoundlanders. Before long, we were receiving positive letters from all over the world.
Things started to pick up and our lives got busier and busier. It got to the point where there was no time for socializing with friends. There was so much to be done and so little time to do it that everything else got put on hold. To get Downhomer out on time took every waking minute. I actually became obsessed with the magazine, although I didn't know it or understand it at the time.
Prior to the advent of Downhomer, the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force figured out that citizens weren't talking to police officers the way they used to in earlier years because the officers were now in squad cars that just drove by. The concerns of the people and the information they might have to share on unsolved crimes were not being heard, so the "foot patrol" program was instituted. Officers from each police station were asked to walk "high crime" projects as a public relations and information gathering venture.
Among those selected for "foot patrol" were Ed Murphy, of Kingston, Newfoundland, and myself. Ed and I became partners. The venture was very successful and together we were able to solve many crimes, including several serious ones. The only problem was that Ed liked to have his moustache a bit longer than regulations allowed. Because he refused to trim his moustache back a few centimetres, he was transferred to the police college (out of public view) where he shuffled papers for a number of years.
Shortly after Downhomer started, a police officer in a smaller Ontario town grew a beard and took his right to have one to the high court of Ontario and won. This meant that Toronto police officers could now grow a beard, so I immediately grew one. Fellow police officers thought I grew the extra hair in a protest to what had happened to my partner Ed, but the truth is I only wanted to save a few minutes shaving before I went to work every day. With the magazine as a going concern, every minute was precious.
One of our earliest volunteers was my son, Grant, who was living in St. John's. Since we had gotten letters from people living in Newfoundland and Labrador, we felt there may be an interest in the magazine back home. Getting magazines from Toronto to St. John's was not something we could afford, so I called my boyhood friend from Twillingate, Lorne Stockley, who was president of a major national trucking company. He managed to find extra space on some of his trucks heading east to get the magazines to Grant for distribution.
In October 1989, Wilson Hopkins became our circulation manager and we put a $1.00 price tag on the magazine. We also added colour ink to some pages. Grant became our Newfoundland and Labrador manager; he sold advertising and got the magazine into stores in this province.
With a price on the magazine it was now easier to get distributors across the country in places like Fort McMurray, Alberta. But with the bigger distribution, I still wasn't able to sell enough advertising to cover costs, until we had a bit of unexpected luck there as well. I always promoted literacy through the magazine by writing about good Newfoundland books I had read. This brought suggestions from our readers that we sell mail-order books through the magazine. When we began doing that, it led to requests for Newfoundland music and other "Newfoundlandia." It added more work to our already overburdened schedules, but it was a blessing nonetheless.
At the time I was selling the advertising, doing editing and page layout, overseeing magazine shipping and mail-order and doing a number of other things, including the bookkeeping. In July of 1990 we hired our first employees, husband and wife Mel and Jo Hynes. Jo took care of subscriptions and other administrative tasks, while Mel did the bookkeeping and mail order. Two more desks were added to our living room as well as more filing cabinets.
In September of 1990, I started the Downhome Radio Show on CHIN radio in Toronto, with my friend Bruce Roberts as host. The show went from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Sunday. If I wasn't on police duty at that time, I co-hosted the show with Bruce. The show went out via satellite and was picked by a number of radio stations across Canada and re-broadcasted. It was also re-broadcast as the sound portion of the community channels by cable companies, including a number in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Shortly after the radio show began I was contacted by Dave Quinton, producer of another show, the very popular "Land and Sea" on CBC-TV in Newfoundland and Labrador. Dave and his team came to Brampton and filmed us. The resulting TV show created a big awareness of the magazine in this province.
In 1993 we bought a building on Lakeshore Boulevard in Toronto, with an apartment above it. On March 21 of that year we put out our last issue from our living room; the next day we rented a big truck and moved both our home and the Downhomer office to the new location. We had a certain amount of stock for mail-order, so opening a Newfoundland store in front of the office was a natural step.
In May 1995, I retired from the Toronto police department and in 1996, we moved the magazine and mail-order operation to St. John's. That year we bought the building at 303 Water Street. Our offices occupied the second and third floors and in June 1997, we opened the Downhome Shoppe and Gallery on the first floor. Pat Hayward joined us, and under his management we started distributing books and other products to stores across Canada. By 2005 our staff had grown to more than 40 people and we had outgrown the building. We moved our offices and warehouse to 43 James Lane in March of that year.
Grant is now running the company and things are going well under his watch. And I have come full circle in the sense that I'm back to working from home, where I still put in over 40 hours a week on the magazine and other Downhome projects, such as books. For the past two years I've been working on Our Sports, a publication comprised of a 400-page book and an accompanying CD with more than 2,000 pages of statistics, stories, biographies and photos. Watch for its release in June.
As for Downhome, which began life as a humble newspaper tabloid given away for free, our circulation is now about 50,000 copies per month, 27,000 of which are by subscription.
Over the years I've noticed the people from this province have regained a sense of pride that went missing in the decades following Confederation. "Stupid Newfie" jokes aren't tolerated like they used to be, and Newfoundland products and services are now desired and much in demand. I believe that Downhome had a lot to do with that change because I saw it happen.