Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 14, 2014
WoodenBoat magazine invites community to celebrate 40 years of publishing and growth
Jon Wilson, founder of WoodenBoat, relaxes during an interview in which he explains the history of the company.
by Faith DeAmbrose
Sometimes in life there are moments when a confluence of factors meet in an optimal way to provide for a certain outcome. For Jon Wilson and WoodenBoat publications there were a number of those times in the past four decades that have shaped the company and challenged its resolve.
As a boat builder from Pembroke, a young Wilson had an idea: create a magazine about wooden boats in the hopes that its mere existence would be enough to slow the extinction of wooden boats.
“There was no question that it was happening,” said Wilson on Monday, August 11. “And it was sad because wooden boats and yachts are genius in their design and construction.”
WoodenBoat magazine first went to press in 1974, but only after Wilson learned (in crash-course fashion) how to construct all aspects of a publication. The stories came to him naturally, but things such as page design, ad placement and how to get it printed were more challenging. Drawing on a variety of professional resources and friendly advice, the magazine made its debut at a boat show in Newport, R.I. It sold hundreds of copies and picked up 200 subscribers. “I thought there would be people who would read it, maybe 10,000,” Wilson said.
Circulation quickly passed the 10,000 mark, and within 10 years its distribution numbers had grown exponentially. The magazine now has 100,000 readers—approximately 55,000 subscribers, and 45,000 newsstand copies are produced for each issue.
“In the ‘80s we focused on what we could do to make the magazine effective,” said Wilson. “What began to happen—and I hope we played some role as a catalyst—is that people began to see the potential of wooden boats; began to see wooden boats [created or refurbished] with modern adhesives, coating and designs.”
Wilson said that he discovered “pockets” of people who were interested in wooden boats, but didn’t know about others sharing the same interest. “WoodenBoat provided the connective tissue,” he said.
And, 40 years later, not only has WoodenBoat magazine held its own in a climate where many print publications are seeing decline, but a sister publication, Professional BoatBuilder emerged in 1989.
In addition WoodenBoat School and the WoodenBoat Store have joined the company ranks and followed suit.
Forty years of growth
WoodenBoat’s second home was in what is now the school’s student housing on Naskeag Road in Brooklin. Wilson lived and worked in Brooksville until a fire took his first office space. It was Maynard Bray and the late Joel White that suggested Wilson take a look at the house. They influenced his work greatly. “Coinciding with the time I made the move to Brooklin, both Maynard and Joel became involved and helped deepen the content. I also began to understand the need for greater rigor in selecting and editing copy.
“In the mid-1980s we realized we were starting to outgrow the house, and I always knew I wanted to start the school,” he said. The bank refused to finance an expansion related to the house, but said they would finance something else. That something else is a 35-room brick mansion, but it is not as glamorous as it sounds.
The new home, further down Naskeag Road, was once an abandoned playground for area youth in the early 1970s. It sat empty for many years. “It had broken windows,” recalled Wilson, adding that even so, the asking price was still too high. The price eventually came down and Wilson’s office is what had been the master bedroom.
The school became another successful venture. It began in July 1981 with 10 courses and 75 students. This year, there are more than 100 courses and 750 students. “Everything just continued to grow at a steady rate,” he said.
So, what made it so successful? Wilson has two ideas: the employees and the community (in a greater Peninsula-wide sense, he is careful to say). WoodenBoat has employees who have been with the job for 30 years, but many have been there for “many” years. “I try to make this a comfortable environment, where people enjoy themselves.”
Wilson has stepped back from the day-to-day activities at the magazine. Jim Miller, the president and publisher, is now the person who calls the shots, leaving space for Wilson to do macro-level planning. “It is important to me that we always maintain excellence,” said Wilson, regardless of the publishing platform and technology.
He said he experiences the magazine issues differently now than when he was managing them directly, but enjoys the “element of surprise” that comes with seeing it complete for the first time.
In honor of the anniversary, WoodenBoat is sharing its reason to celebrate with the community and the community is responding in kind. Area boat builders will allow tours of their facilities, the WoodenBoat campus will be open for tours, the fire department will host a BBQ and the First Baptist Church will host a lobster dinner. The Brooklin Keeping Society (adjacent to the fire house) has prepared a special history of Brooklin to accompany the festivities.
A partial look at the schedule includes the following. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, August 14-16, guided tours of the WoodenBoat campus will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visit Brooklin’s boatyards Thursday and Friday for guided tours. On Friday, the fire department puts on a silent auction and barbecue supper (reservations required). Meet and greet the WoodenBoat editors and staff on Saturday at 4 p.m., followed by a lobster dinner at 5 p.m. (dinner reservations required). All weekend there will be a display of reader-built boats.
For a complete list of the events and for more information visit woodenboat.com. For dinner reservations, call 359-4651.