30 years of arts, culture and everything else

Sandpoint Magazine celebrates three decades of showing what this town can do

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Sandpoint has certainly changed in the past 30 years, but one constant has held true: twice a year, a fresh new edition of the Sandpoint Magazine chock full of everything that makes this community vibrant hits the newsstands.

The glossy arts and culture magazine’s inaugural edition appeared in winter 1990-’91, and ever since it has been a labor of love by Publisher Chris Bessler, his dedicated staff and contributing writers — many of whom continue to write for the magazine today.

Filled with stories about the heart and soul of North Idaho, Sandpoint Magazine has tackled just about everything in its 60 editions: local artists, interviews with notable Sandpoint residents, features about local industry, spotlights on movers and shakers in North Idaho and a compendium of everything to further its mission “to help you get more out of being in Sandpoint.”

Earthshaking beginnings

Chris Bessler stands next to his famous Macintosh SE in the Farmin Office Building where Sandpoint Magazine was first published circa 1991. Courtesy photo.

Publisher and founder Chris Bessler is no stranger to the printed word. He served as editor of the Bonner County Daily Bee from 1982-’86, working for then-owner Pete Thompson before the publication was sold to the Hagadone Corporation. Bessler then moved to Santa Cruz, Calif. and worked on an alt-weekly called Good Times, as well as an arts and culture magazine called Cruzan.

It was Bessler’s work with Cruzan, a revolutionary new computer and a massive earthquake that eventually led to him moving back to Sandpoint to found Sandpoint Magazine.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that devastated the Bay Area also impacted the office building where Bessler worked in Santa Cruz. 

“The earthquake destroyed the offices I was in. They didn’t level the building, but it was condemned,” Bessler told the Reader. “My boss told me, ‘If you’ll sneak in with me past the police cordon and help me get my computers out, I’ll give you a computer.”

At the time, a Macintosh SE was a revolution to the printing business. Once dominated by laborious typesetting, publishing with a digital platform meant quicker work time as well as an easier and more dynamic layout. 

“It was a $3,000 computer, which at the time was a big deal,” Bessler said. “So after dark, we got our computers out and that’s what gave me the equipment to start Sandpoint Magazine.”

Armed with his fancy new Mac — which by today’s standards seems quite antiquated — Bessler returned to Sandpoint and noticed a need for a similar glossy arts and culture magazine in Sandpoint.

“The biggest factor that set me up was working with Schweitzer. They were doing their big expansion on the mountain with the Brown/Huguenin family,” Bessler said. “They had been producing a vision for Schweitzer that included building this village up there, replacing the day lodge with the new day lodge, building Green Gables, putting in high-speed chairlifts and fixing the roads up there.”

Seeing the opportunity to market Schweitzer as a four-season resort, then-Schweitzer owner Bobby Huguenin saw Sandpoint as an integral part of that mission.

Noting that it was a “happy coincidence” that Schweitzer was looking to expand the arts and culture of Sandpoint through their own magazine, Bessler pitched the idea for what would become Sandpoint Magazine and received positive feedback from the resort’s management.

Schweitzer Magazine had already begun as a niche publication for the ski resort, but it was being published out of Montana and Bessler saw an opportunity to make it a local effort, as well as expanding the subject matter.

“They committed to buying a page of advertising and even helped out with some of their accounts from their Schweitzer Magazine,” Bessler said.

The first edition came out in winter 1990-’91 and featured 32 glossy pages. To give some scale of how the magazine has grown, recent editions weigh in at more than 160 pages, with some issues pushing 200 pages.

A little help from friends

Bessler was the only employee in the beginning, but he enlisted the help of a few local writers to help launch the magazine in earnest.

“The first issue, a key guy we got on board was Sandy Compton,” Bessler said. “He came on as a contributor and went out and corralled advertising sales, too. That would’ve been really hard without Sandy’s work. He’s a great writer and he continues to write for the magazine over the years. In fact, he wrote the cover story for this 30th anniversary issue.”

Compton said he came on board after an “unpleasant experience as the owner of Sandpoint Newsline,” an erstwhile weekly Sandpoint publication.

“I met Chris Bessler, who asked me, ‘How would you like something really good to sell?’ So I went to work as sales director for the nascent Sandpoint Magazine,” Compton told the Reader. “It all seemed so easy. Then Bessler found out I could write, as well.”

Compton learned he wasn’t cut out for sales, so he stepped away. But, he kept writing for the magazine which has published his work in darn near every edition over the years.

Of the many stories he has contributed to the magazine, Compton remembers one he did on Schweitzer’s Ski Patrol in the winter 2007 edition.

“There were a couple of tales gathered in that research I felt were best left out of the submission, one involving dynamite and the other involving a couple,” Compton said. “Patrol is composed of a great bunch of people who do crazy things from time to time.”

Compton has also contributed historical pieces in the magazine over the years, including one on the steamboats on Lake Pend Oreille and an interview with Hazel Hall, whose husband Ross Hall was the Ansel Adams of early Sandpoint history.

In the mid-1990s, when Sandpoint was getting beat up in the national media after events like Ruby Ridge, Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations compound and a famous retired L.A. policeman moving to the area exacerbated the racist reputation of North Idaho, Compton wrote a thoughtful piece called “Who We Are” that still remains as timely today as it was 25 years ago.

“That was one of the hardest pieces I ever put together, but the hardest ones seem to be the best ones,” he said. 

Compton said one of his favorite memories was when the editorial staff was picking a cover photo for the second winter issue.

“Chris had chosen one of those skier-bursting-through-the-powder-in-the-trees shots,” Compton said. “I wasn’t thrilled, and he told me — in the manner of a publisher under deadline — ‘OK. See if you can find something better.’ I started digging through slides and there appeared right shortly the picture we used. It’s still one of my favorites.” (see page 16, second cover image from the left).

Editorial direction

Also during the first year, Bessler said a smartly-dressed young woman named Billie Jean Gerke (then Plaster) walked through the door to see what she could add to the Sandpoint Magazine family.

“Billie Jean ended up being the first editorial staffer to come on board,” Bessler said. “She contributed to the second issue, then a couple years later she came on board and became the editor through 2016. She’s played a huge role in shaping what Sandpoint Magazine was.”

Gerke told the Reader she remembered seeing the first issue of Sandpoint Magazine at Harold’s IGA for the first time and “didn’t think much more about it.”

Armed with a degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Gerke was hoping to get a job in Spokane, but after looking for three months she found no success. 

Billie Jean Gerke takes a break from editing duties at Sandpoint Magazine’s headquarters in the 1990s. Courtesy photo.

“Then it dawned on me that I moved back to Sandpoint to live here, not Spokane, so I made it my goal to shift my job search to Sandpoint after the first of the year,” Gerke said. 

Gerke said she donned her “finest business clothes, grabbed my portfolio and headed to the Sandpoint Unlimited office on Cedar Street,” to inquire about a job.

Debbie Ferguson, who had served on the then-Bonner County School Board when Gerke graduated from Sandpoint High School in 1985, pointed across the street to the Farmin Building and told Gerke she should go ask Bessler for a job.

Gerke marched up to the Keokee office (fun fact: the same room where the Reader publishes out of today) and briefly talked with Bessler and Compton. Bessler offered to pay Gerke $30 to write some business profiles for their next edition, then assigned a story to her for the summer 1991 edition. 

After freelancing for a year and a half, Gerke said she “pestered” Bessler to hire her. Bessler hired Gerke, who served as front-office person as well as writer and ad sales representative until they agreed on the title of “senior editor.”

After stepping away in 1999 to freelance from home after the Dot-Com Boom busted, Bessler called asking for Gerke to return. She resumed working full-time in spring of 2004, staying on until 2016 when she realized her days as an editor were numbered due to her eyes flaring up from staring at computer screens for 25 years.

“I always felt blessed to work in my chosen field in my hometown and to do it with a company that had integrity under the leadership of Chris Bessler — a truly wonderful, kind and talented man,” Gerke said. “As Bessler pointed out in the 20th anniversary issue, Sandpoint Magazine doesn’t belong to him, even though he’s the founder and publisher. It belongs to the community. I think we should have tremendous pride in that publication and what it’s done for our town. We have a quality journalistic product with professional writing and photography that can compete with the best of the best.”

Former River Journal Publisher Trish Gannon stepped in after Gerke retired, and has remained a vital part of the editorial direction of the publication.

“Chris called and asked if I could help out for an issue,” Gannon told the Reader. “And then he let me stay. So Chris is probably the one who’s the glutton for punishment!”

Gannon said a strength of Sandpoint Magazine is that it “focuses more on the big picture of the community (though it doesn’t ignore the little picture) and I’ve learned a lot about things that are going on. I love this place — always have — and the magazine work just makes me love it more.”

Artful designs

“There is definitely a big element of creativity in producing a magazine or newspaper,” Bessler said. “People that are driven by creative impulse and looking for a creative outlet — those are the folks that really grab onto these kinds of ventures. It’s a means of expression for them.”

One of the other first staffers at Sandpoint Magazine was Randy Wilhelm, whose artful design and style helped contribute to creating a dynamic layout that makes it such a joy to look at.

“Randy came on board really early and got us off the ground with much better design than I could come up with,” Bessler said.

After Wilhelm left to pursue his career in education, Bessler hired Laura Wahl as lead designer, who held the position until recently when Pam Morrow took over as art director and designer.

Bessler also wanted to mention the late Larry Lantrip’s assistance in helping the magazine succeed in early years.

“Larry was the Macintosh guy in town,” Bessler said. “We were a small club of people and Larry had a lot more knowledge of the machine than I did. He contributed some of the graphics; and, though he wasn’t on payroll, he worked for hire on a lot of stuff. He helped get the first issues off the ground.”

A stable of talent

Another contributor who came out of the woodwork for the very first edition was Susan Drinkard (fun fact: Susan has done the “People Watching” column for the Reader each and every week for the past five years). 

Drinkard wrote her first article for Sandpoint Magazine on how cross country skiing is like a haiku.

“I was teaching language arts at the Sandpoint Middle School then, and didn’t hang out at the Keokee office very much, but I do have fond memories of fun repartee with the late author Dennis Nicholls, who died too young.”

Drinkard said the role of Sandpoint Magazine has remained constant over the years: to present the best of what this town has to offer.

“My brother, Rob, who lives in Hayden, once told me he reads every article in the Sandpoint Magazine because each one is interesting and well written,” Drinkard said. “It’s far more than a tourist magazine. It is packed with historical information, recreational opportunities, news of business endeavors and in every edition there is an interview with someone relatively famous who has ties to Sandpoint. I can imagine 15 different ways the magazine could be used in secondary classrooms. 

“With Chris Bessler at the helm, you can always expect a classy publication; folks have no idea how expensive it is to produce,” she added.

Among her most memorable stories, Drinkard includes, “an interview with the late world-famous installation artist, Ed Kienholz, whose art was known to shake up norms through shocking exposure. Let’s just leave it at that. And my interview with Marilynne Robinson, who wrote the novel Housekeeping, set on our lake, and who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, was a big coup for me.”

Drinkard still contributes articles, and even gives the magazine a last look before publication.

“I am fortunate to proofread the magazine before it goes to print, and when I am finished reading it, I realize that I am just not cool enough to live here,” she said.

“There’s so much incredible talent in the community!” Gannon added. “Reading Susan Drinkard’s proofreading notes is a highlight of every issue.”

Another local writer who gravitated toward Sandpoint Magazine was Dave Gunter, who had his share of interesting encounters over the years in the name of journalism.

“My interview with Gunther Schuller during the early years of The Festival at Sandpoint got off to a famously bad start when he, right off the bat, launched into a tirade about being interviewed by people who thought Madonna was a great artist, knew nothing about him or his career, cared less about classical music, and on and on,” Gunter told the Reader. “He was being an ass, to put it mildly. I correct myself — a proper, pompous ass.”

Gunter said he waited for “Herr Schuller to draw a breath,” when he broke in to say, “Hold it, sport!” and rattled off a few highlights from his own diligent interview preparation, along with a few items that established Gunter’s musical cred.

“He stammered a bit, said, ‘Oh, well… in that case,’ and we were off to the races,” Gunter said. “But it was a damn close call.”

Gunter said that after 30 years of publication, “The intent and tone of the magazine have remained remarkably intact, from my perspective. That’s no mean feat, since it’s an enormous challenge to preserve the original flash of creativity and energy that comes with starting up a publication with what was, basically, a tiger team of publisher, editor and layout staff and a scrappy group of freelance writers. If anything, the overall quality and content has improved over the years.”

When asked what Sandpoint Magazine contributes to the community, Gunter said, “Having a high-quality, glossy periodical that actually originates from Sandpoint and covers subjects of local and regional interest makes a big — and very important — statement about not only the people behind the magazine, but also the readership and businesses that support its continued vitality. Interestingly, the nature of modern publishing has made it possible for some additional publications to crop up with the word ‘Sandpoint’ in their titles. There’s only one original, in my opinion, that truly calls Sandpoint home and has purely local origins.”

The nature of an arts community

What started as an attempt to explore and celebrate local arts and culture has morphed into an important reciprocal relationship.

“We have, by intention, sought to support that culture by writing about it and using the photography we use,” Bessler said. “But it’s a symbiotic relationship — we want to support the arts, and by writing about the arts, we foster artists to seek their own ways to express themselves creatively and give them an outlet for that. Part of what gives Sandpoint Magazine interest to readers is writing about these interesting people and the things they are doing.”

A vital part of Sandpoint Magazine’s success includes Ad Director Clint Nicholson, Bessler said, whose daily interactions with business owners helps to not only create revenue for the publication, but to also pass on the trends to Bessler’s editorial staff.

“Clint has a finger on the pulse of Sandpoint that is profound,” Bessler said. “He’s always talking to a lot of different business owners out there, and he’s able to give us a head’s up on what concerns and issues and neat things are happening with them on the editorial side of the magazine.”

Acknowledging that today’s pandemic world hit while print publications were already on shaky ground, Bessler is confident that Sandpoint Magazine will keep on keepin’ on.

“I think niche publications like Sandpoint Magazine, and the Reader itself, are going to thrive where general consumer publications will be decimated by ad dollars going to the online sphere,” said Bessler, who also co-owns the Sandpoint Reader. “Because we have really well-defined readerships, we can really describe to our advertisers who is going to be looking at their ads because of the type of editorial content we carry.”

Printing 25,000 copies each winter and 30,000 each summer, Sandpoint Magazine remains the premier Sandpoint publication with the largest circulation around.

Bessler said that the main goal is to “present Sandpoint in a positive light. We do often deal with issues that are in town — problems that the community faces — but we try to deal with them from a positive point of view. We try to find the common ground that everyone can agree about what they like about Sandpoint — whether you’re conservative, liberal, a tourist or a local, there’s a lot of common ground in there. Hopefully if we do any good at all, it’s in helping people see that they do have a lot in common with their neighbors and other groups. We’re in a fractious time right now, so it might be hard to see that, but we have more in common than apart.”

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