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George and Jean Shirk were living the good life in San Francisco. George had moved from his job covering the NBA for the San Francisco Chronicle to become editor-in-chief of Wired Digital, the online offshoot of Wired magazine. After his wife, Jean, had served as director of advertising for Bill Graham Presents, the late rock impresario’s company, she started an alternative-rock record label. But despite their glamorous careers and “high six-figure” incomes, the concessions required to live the urban life had become increasingly steep. “We love the Bay Area, but let’s face it: The traffic is stultifying and the commute times are insane. There are just too many people,” George says. So they ditched San Francisco, moved into a small condo in Mammoth Lakes and launched a resort magazine, Mammoth Monthly. “I thought, ‘What would it be like if I were sitting in Mammoth at 5:05 a.m. instead of sitting in traffic on the Bay Bridge?'” George says.
There was more to the Shirks’ decision to leave jobs and friends behind than their love for the Eastern Sierra’s dramatic outdoors and laid-back lifestyle. When Intrawest acquired 59 percent of Mammoth Mountain in the late 1990s and began transforming the resort by building a village of upscale condos, shops and restaurants, the town’s economy soared and property values climbed. George and Jean-who have skied Mammoth since the mid-’90s-saw it as the ideal time to make a move they had only been considering for after retirement: relocating to the mountains.
With George’s kids from a previous marriage grown and the couple looking for new challenges, everything lined up. “It was the ‘perfect storm,'” George says, “the perfect time for us to say, ‘What do we really want to do?’ In Mammoth, I saw a little town experiencing an economic boom in the middle of a national recession. I said, ‘Let’s go there.'”
Since both had media backgrounds, starting a magazine was a natural move. Before their arrival, Mammoth had been what George calls “media-shallow,” with one quarterly lifestyle magazine, one weekly newspaper and a single FM radio station. The pair moved into their one-bedroom condo in 2002 and began publishing the magazine, which covers all things Mammoth. They’ve aimed the publication not only at Mammoth’s 7,000 residents, but also at the resort’s devotees in Southern California.
“There was no publication that defined the place,” says the energetic 51-year-old George. “We wanted Mammoth Monthly to be a window into Mammoth for the people who love the place and don’t live here and, a mirror that reflects reality for the people who do live here.” The couple began with modest plans, launching a 20-page publication with color covers and newsprint inside. After a little more than one year, the magazine has exceeded the pair’s forecast. “We were projecting a loss for the first year, but it’s about half of what we had expected,” says 47-year-old Jean, who handles the business side as publisher while her husband serves as editor. “I believe we’re going to break even and maybe make money next year, and we weren’t expecting that until after three years.”
They’ve already added color pages, and hope to double the size of the magazine once they’ve increased ad sales, which now are primarily from retail and real estate. “We’re producing the highest-quality periodical that we can and still keep costs reasonable,” Jean says. “We’ll continue to improve it as profits allow.”
It’s a small operation: The office is a tiny loft in the couple’s condo, and the Shirks put the magazine together themselves, with only the help of a freelance graphic designer. The magazine, which publishes 10 times per year with a circulation of 20,000, is free at shops, restaurants, hotels and other outlets throughout the Eastern Sierra, Southern California, Reno and Las Vegas. There’s also an $18 annual subscription. George writes many of the articles, and though a majority of the contributors are locall, the magazine is starting to attract national writers.
The couple started the company with their savings (Jean refers to themselves as “Internet thousandaires”). The magazine covers the “Mammoth experience” in a chatty, intelligent tone, often through profiles of local celebrities, athletes and artists. It strives to be a sophisticated, offbeat guide to the local life, with a recent issue offering tips on gear, hiring a chef and finding the best restaurants, along with poetry, health advice and a look at the valley’s politics.
This fall morning happens to be the day before Mammoth Mountain opens, and George has his Tua skis laid out in the living room. (He’s the family’s serious downhiller and a budding telemarker, skiing about 50 times last season.) The condo is a brief walk from Chair 15, and there’s no need for him to check the ski report-a window near the kitchen provides a clear view of the summit. Jean downhills occasionally, but prefers to cross-country ski in the backcountry. During the vivid Eastern Sierra summers, the Shirks hike the vast local wilderness.
The couple’s previous careers prepared them for their new venture. Jean worked as a reporter at an East Bay newspaper before joining promoter Graham’s company, where she met a who’s who of rock luminaries. She recalls watching a Yankees-Braves World Series game backstage with Bruce Springsteen.
Her husband, meanwhile, started as a reporter in his home state of Iowa until he was hired by the Philadelphia Inquirer, covering the 76ers during the Julius Erving era. He later reported for the San Francisco Chronicle, and after helping to set up the newspaper’s online branch, he left to head up Wired Digital. George and Jean’s first date was a Paul McCartney concert.
The Shirks have occasional differences over the content or direction of their magazine, but they say that they never really fight. “We both understand intuitively when to back off, when to join forces or when to share ideas,” George says. “We’ve been able to successfully disagree. This is really hard for (many) married people. So far we’ve successfully navigated that minefield.”
In the end, the Shirks realize that what’s good for each of them personally is good both for their marriage and their business. “I don’t think that there’s a geographical solution for happiness,” George says, “but here’s what I know: I’m happier here than I am anywhere else.”
Name George and Jean ShirkAge 51 (him), 47 (her)Profession Publishing a monthly resort magazine Personal Urban refugees; downhiller (him), nordic (her)Why Mammoth “We’re participants in this beautiful place.”