Just Don't Call Them Martha 

Berkeley do-it-yourself rag is a hipster's answer to Better Living.

A visitor arriving to interview Shoshana Berger of Berkeley-based ReadyMade magazine is promptly met with a challenge from the young editor-in-chief: "See if you can write your article without once mentioning Martha Stewart," she says.

Hmm. Two savvy, urbane thirty-year-old women start a hipster magazine chock-full of do-it-yourself home projects and sly features. Before the third issue even hits the streets, they're throwing around expressions like "brand extension" and plotting books, DIY product kits, even a TV show. Their office, sequestered in the rear of a dingy 8th Street warehouse crammed with furniture from dead dot-coms, boasts a throw rug made from carpet samples, a floor lamp that once was a tomato trellis, and paint-by-the-number topographic maps.

Sorry, ladies: challenge refused. It was totally unfair, really, given that the magazine itself has a section called "Post-Martha" and that Berger found her muse in the summer of 2000 while kvetching with a friend that there was no Martha Stewart for the younger set.

Self-publishing a for-profit magazine in any economic climate is crazy. During a recession, it's madness on a shoestring. Berger and co-conspirator Grace Hawthorne have by necessity run their business like one of the do-it-yourself household projects featured in their mag, scraping together cash and materials from unlikely sources. With so many recent media disasters, the pair has found potential investors and partners to be a skeptical lot. "It's been a bit of a struggle to convince them that we have staying power with our limited resources when magazines like Talk, the Industry Standard, and ONE have flamed out on Blahnik budgets," says Berger.

At the same time, ReadyMade is no mere zine. The cofounders have managed to corral $150,000 in start-up funds from individuals -- known in the business world as "angel investors" -- and have kept costs down by not paying themselves or first-time writers, although other staffers are compensated. Thanks to their asceticism, the magazine is on track to turn a profit by next spring, says publisher Hawthorne. Still, with a mere 8,500 subscribers, it barely registers on the conventional media scale. "People are so numbers-driven," she says. "And we can't deliver the large numbers of subscribers. How could we?"

Therein lies the conundrum of all new magazines: You can't rake in big advertising dollars until you prove you have a large audience, but it's hard to reach a large audience without lots of cash. Another obstacle to the pair's success is the prevailing view that do-it-yourselfers are older -- as in richer, as in homeowners. Potential advertisers such as Home Depot, for example, don't think ReadyMade's young readers are likely to spend big bucks there. "We have to convince them otherwise," says Hawthorne.

That's where the side ventures come in. This DIY duo wants to turn selected projects from its magazine, such as the Meat-Cart Bed, into kits for sale on the magazine's Web site. They've hired an agent to shop around a book proposal, which they won't discuss except to say, "It won't be a coffee-table book." They're exploring a content-swap relationship with Sunset magazine. There's even a TV pilot, they say, a how-to show for teenagers, which is under consideration at a network.

Reminded that such media-expansion fantasies almost killed Wired (where Berger once worked) and helped kill the Industry Standard (where this reporter once worked), Berger and Hawthorne note that they aren't spending money on the sideshows, just time and energy. "These ventures are natural extensions of what we do," says Hawthorne.

What ReadyMade has done well so far is tap into the desire of young, consumption-weary urbanites to make stuff instead of buying it. The magazine's featured projects, even the wacky ones, are doable without taking a sabbatical from work or graduate school. One article shows readers how to install lights in a bed headboard, another demonstrates how to bind books yourself, Japanese-style, using dental floss. There was a fun piece for new live-in girlfriends on how to debachelorize the boyfriend's pad, and a rather unsavory taxidermy project titled "How to Stuff a Bird (Not for Thanksgiving)." ("Step one: acquire a dead pigeon.")

So do the women of ReadyMade practice what they preach? Not exactly. Hawthorne laughs and says her apartment is too "House and Garden," and while the recently evicted Berger is in temporary digs, she's not yet resigned herself to such projects as "How to Make a Corrugated Cardboard Box Shelter."

The fledgling magazine is far more than a crib-enhancement manual for renters and frugal homeowners. A good portion of it explores the greater question of what it means to live the DIY lifestyle. In the second issue, a writer interviews his dad -- a publisher of arcane manuals for mechanical tinkerers -- posing questions like: "Is an interest in steam engines something you grow into?" Many pieces are just plain fun, like a foldout "Periodic Table of Hardware" wall chart. The fluffier bits, including a self-absorbed piece titled "How to Become a Rock Star," make you wonder whether readers actually do these projects, as opposed to living the hip, thrifty lifestyle vicariously through the magazine -- sort of the way, um, Martha appeals to the creative-domestic fantasies of middle-aged suburbanites. "We're calling to people's creative gene, but it doesn't mean they'll rise to the call," Berger acknowledges, but she adds that the staff often faxes instructions to readers who've lost their issues in mid-project.

Though the publishers of ReadyMade can't afford fancy reader audits, there's evidence that they are indeed attracting creative, crafty types. In the presence of their visitor, the staff breaks from its production-week grind to chirp over the day's mail. A back-page contest in the second issue encouraged readers to make something -- anything -- out of the magazine itself and send it in. The winning entry will be published and its creator gets a free subscription. "It's a 'Look What I ReadyMade!'" exclaims Berger, opening one such package. This particular entry looks like a papier-mâché box or large ashtray, or perhaps a modest fez.

The reader's effort immediately reminded this writer of how his Grandma Ida used to make pencil holders by lining coffee cans with rolled-up magazine pages and cloth fringe while Grandpa Frank turned chunks of driftwood into clocks in the shed behind their desert mobile home. ("Too uppity," said Ida, when asked her opinion on Martha Stewart. Frank, alas, is no longer available for interviews.)

This couple would have loved ReadyMade, except perhaps for the concrete light bulb, a bizarre home-decor idea from the first issue, or the "How to Become a Famous Writer" piece advising Steinbeck wannabes to "put naked pictures of yourself on the Internet."

From a desk drawer, Berger pulls out her best contest entry to date: a necklace in which the magazine's pages have been tightly rolled into beads. The craftsperson has painstakingly ensured that a word appears on the surface of each bead. Strategically placed and facing the wearer, the beads spell out: "I -- (heart) -- Ready -- Made."

That's the kind of reader devotion that can turn scrappy start-ups into publishing icons. It's a small thing, perhaps, but as Martha herself likes to say, "It's a good thing."


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