It all started in 1984. Wilmington’s arts scene was on the rise, thanks to a new film industry moving in, artists like Claude Howell teaching at UNCW and churning out work, musicians playing across an up-and-coming renovated downtown, as mom-and-pop retail shops and restaurants peppered the community from the river to the beaches. A former local, Nixie Nunnelee Peak, had been passed over for an ad director promotion at the New York Times newspaper group in Florida when her dad called to ask when she planned on moving back home.
“I said I’d think about it,” the Appalachian English major remembers. “I read [Raleigh’s] The Spectator and Atlanta’s Creative Loafing, and I told Dad, ‘If you’ll help me [start an alternative weekly], I’ll come home, and we’ll give it a shot.’ So I put in my notice and said, ‘Here I come.’
Peak launched encore one week in July of 1984; this year we go into our 30th year of publishing southeastern NC’s premier alternative voice. But years ago, during Peak’s founding, the days of cutting and pasting physical paper together in order to create a newspaper mandated the workload of a weekly. This was before computers, emails, dropboxes, and FTP sites allowed virtual connections and data transference with the push of a button.
“We took actual hard copy from our writers, typed out mostly, and the stories and pictures, for our layout,” Peak explains. “We’d send it up to the Sampson Independent, where encore was printed. They’d give us feedback on links, then we’d guesstimate the page count. Thursday at noon was the ad deadline, and I’d do a mockup of where ads would go and we’d try to fit copy around them.”
During the pickup of the first edition of encore, Peak and her editor, Kevin Cox, drove up to Sampson County in her mother’s old station wagon, wood paneling included. Completely naïve to how much 15,000 copies of a 16-page paper would weigh, they pushed the limits on their first delivery.
“Me and Kevin loaded it up, and the headlights just kept going up and up and up with each load,” Peak remembers with a laugh. “We were praying we’d make it to Wilmington without blowing a tire. I was hands-on in everything. I wanted to do the route myself, and after half a day of that, I realized I needed help. I had a blast doing it but it was a lot of hard work. It’s evolved into something a little more today.”
Though content and page count has certainly increased, the staff-count Peak once employed remains similar. Encore’s manpower in 2014 still operates close to the wire: seven full-time employees, with two interns, and 10 freelance writers. The page count averages around 56.
In the midst of Peak’s upstart, Apple desktop publishing also became operational. Editor Kevin Cox went on to work for Wake Forest University in public relations. Michael Byrd came in to help the staff adjust to Apple—still used today.
“Our office was located on Market Street, down from The Dixie Grill, in the corner office on John Sawyer’s lower level,” Peak says. Shortly after launching, they moved to the Elks Temple Building at 249 North Front Street. They ran the paper from a basement, which was—until last summer upon closing—the Nutt Street Comedy Room and Soapbox Laundro-Lounge.
In 1990 Peak was planning to marry a fella from Charlotte, NC, and needed to relocate. She met Rosalind Barker, who then published the Guide to Cape Fear Leisure (now known as Wilmington Today)—a hardbound book delivered to hotel rooms and visitor centers in southeastern NC. With a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, Barker took over encore.
“My husband came up with the bright idea to start the Leisure Guide,” she says, “which was fine, but you have to do the whole thing yourself: write stories, sell ads, take pictures. With encore, the deadline was too quick. I found I had to have a lot of people do a lot of other stuff.”
Barker saw encore’s staff grow to around 10. She concedes content never waned. Like other operations, it was the whole business side of it that caused most stress.
“There’s a difference between being a publisher and an editor, like producer and director of movie,” she says. “Much like a producer, as a publisher, you have to do the stuff that no one wants to do: collecting money, running after this, that and the other…planning, and planning and planning.”
Sales always has driven the free publication, to no avail. And it’s always been a constant battle to win over the competitors.
“We always had to think about what we could do as a niche paper to stand above other publications, which at that time was really only the daily paper,” Barker notes.
Peak remembers a host of early advertisers who really showed support for encore. Intracoastal Realty, Bald Head Island, Blockade Runner, Oceanic, Coastal Beverage, Cotton Exchange, Chandler’s Wharf, Elijah’s, Pilot House, Elizabeth’s Pizza, and Berts are only a few. Many of them still advertise today.
In today’s market, the clientele proves more competitive than 30 years ago. More than a dozen niche publications exist in Wilmington and surrounding areas.
“Nixie was really a pioneer in founding encore,” Wade Wilson, publisher from 1993 to 2006, says. Another arts and entertainment publication wasn’t around in the mid-’80s. When she started encore, Peak learned the day of incorporating the company about the artsy paper, Musings, which was going to launch.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god! What am I doing?’” she quips. “I went in to see my lawyer, Mr. Murkinson, and he said, ‘Nixie, you really think Wilmington is big enough to handle this? Ya know what you’re doing, here?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, I do’—not so sure, really. But Musings didn’t last.’”
Wilson, a UNC Chapel Hill journalism major, approached Rosalind Barker for a job in the early ‘90s. He had worked at a small newspaper previously and enjoyed writing. Ad sales really wasn’t his calling. During their interview, Barker asked what sales experience he had. His response: “I want your job.”
“I said, ‘Not today … my job,’” she recollects. “I told him, ‘I’m looking for a sales person.’ But some time later, we struck a deal.”
[Ed. note: Funny enough, that was the same interview I had with Wilson upon getting hired after my internship expired in 1999.
“You can be an ad sales rep, a front desk receptionist or a freelance writer,” he offered.
My response: “I want to be the editor.”
“Well, I have an editor,” he told me with a laugh.]
“Ros had a great staff in place,” Wilson states. “When I came in, it was a matter of helping them get over the idea that I was going to fire all of them. I came in at a good time, when the economy was really good, so it was an easy start for me.”
Wilson employed then editor John Staton and Amanda Kraus to help run the paper, along with a multitude of sales staff members. He also continued overseeing many side projects encore published, including Guide to Cape Fear Leisure, Summer and Fall Alternatives—which focused on kids’ camps and was distributed through all the schools—UNCW Directions, and the Wilmington Regional Film Commission Guide. “It was a constant juggling act,” he says. “But it was a lot of fun.”
“Content was never an issue with encore,” Barker intervenes. “The business side was always the bigger challenge—content, distribution, and ad sales to have a viable business.”
The side projects really helped with encore’s bottom line, in fact. Still, today, its publishing group offers more than just encore. KIDZink Magazine (2005-2010), Encore Restaurant Week (2009-present), encoreDeals, and most recently the launching of Wilmington’s foodie mag, Devour, and encore GO’s app drive the business as much as the paper. It’s par for the course in the publishing industry.
“I think that’s where my New York Times training comes in,” Peak adds. “It’s how we survived. I was trained right about not negotiating for ads, doing contract prices and not letting a friend have a better deal over the next person. I was very much into the code of things.”
Of course, from a public perspective, the glory of the publication comes from its content, and the writers they’ve trusted to deliver all the things to do locally each and every week. In fact, encore always has been locally driven—point blank. The only syndications one will read in the paper come from News of the Weird, the crossword, Rob Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology, and the toons published in the calendar. Peak maintained that standard from day one, as she employed a host of local talent, some of whom wrote for free, even. Many included professors from UNCW who used encore as a launching pad to get published. “I had quality writers like Ellyn Bache, who was our books editor, and has gone on to author her own books,” Peak says.
Barker’s dreams of being a features writer came to fruition during her proprietorship. Having grown up in Atlanta, she wanted to reside in a place large enough to tell the interesting stories of the people who comprised it.
“One of my favorite memories with encore is my visit with Claude Howell,” she says. “I went to his pent house, and he would hold court there everyday around 5 p.m. I wanted him to let me use his work on Cape Fear Leisure and on the cover of encore. I wanted to see if we could reprint his WHQR commentary—and he agreed to do it all. We did a series and ran historical ramblings and showcased his work; he was such an interesting person. When you read about poets and artists from here to there, you can just see that he was reminiscent of them: slept all day, woke up at 5 p.m., chose his substance, held court with friends, and enjoyed life as he wanted. It was so different from my life and I was fascinated.”
All three publishers moved on to other careers eventually. Peak went back into sales for a brief stint and reared her children before getting her real estate license. Barker went back to school at UNCW to get her CPA license. Wilson moved on to real estate as well. Yet, they all still write.
“I have a lot of different projects, from movie scripts to books,” Wilson says, whose writing always includes a hefty dose of humor. “I get two-thirds the way through, though, and stop. But whatever I’m writing, it won’t be great literature…”
“But you have a style!” Peak interrupts. “People need humor to get through life. I always tell my children there’s a great book in me somwehere.”
Moving on, like anything, was hard for each of them. They all agree.
“When I sold encore, it was like selling one of my children,” Barker remembers. “I really do think for three months I was in mourning.”
“I remember when we closed after selling the paper, I just got in the car and bawled,” Peak says. “My mother was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘You just don’t understand.’ But it was relief, too. It was a lot. I mean those weekly deadlines just age you.”
“I won’t lie: I still have nightmares—mostly about the calendar—that keep me awake at night,” Wilson adds.
Wilson sold the company to Morris Multimedia in 2004, and it moved from its signature downtown location to North Market Street. Wilson stayed on for two more years as publisher. In 2007 Wilmington Media bought back encore from Morris to once again independently run the paper. “It’s always had that artsy personality,” Peak says. “It’s just not corporate.”
“I cannot believe how much encore has not missed a step since 2008, when everything went into the toilet with the economy,” Wilson adds. “The publishing industry really plummeted, but you guys have soared. You’re just closer to the pulse of the people.”