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At RQ magazine, print is alive and swell

Editor-in-chief Heather Shayne Blakeslee says readers weary of digital overload will find an oasis in Root Quarterly (RQ), the print-only magazine she launched in Philadelphia in 2019.

Issues of Root Quarterly are pictured on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. The print journal features work by local writers, poets, and artists.
Issues of Root Quarterly are pictured on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020. The print journal features work by local writers, poets, and artists.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

A three-year-long thread of lively conversations led editor Heather Shayne Blakeslee to start the sort of magazine she and her peers want to read.

Nurtured in the Queen Village home that Blakeslee, a singer-songwriter, shares with her partner, professional furniture mover, and managing editor Walter Foley, RQ (Root Quarterly) is an ambitious, meticulously designed publication about arts, culture, politics, food, and Philadelphia. It offers journalism, fiction, poetry, photographs, graphics, and personal essays by a diverse and youthful crew of creatives. And it’s available only in print.

The preceding sentence wasn’t a misprint.

“A lot of people are really tired of online discourse,” said Blakeslee, a lifelong magazine lover who intends RQ to be a “thinking person’s” escape from the filter bubbles, flaming, and fakery blighting the digital realm. “We forego snark,” she said.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean the magazine lacks a website ( or that stories are written in longhand. Podcasts are what RQ often resembles; it’s not always clear where the conversations are heading, but they usually land somewhere interesting.

A cultural omnivore and publishing veteran who edited Philadelphia’s Grid magazine, Blakeslee embraces the notion that slow media (think slow food, but with words) is better for us.

“It’s just such a relief to get something beautiful in the mail and sit down and spend time with it," she said. “We really thought through how the magazine would feel in people’s hands. And how it would feel to read.”

A series of salon-style discussion sessions in friends’ homes, as well as a $6,000 investment, yielded a 750-copy run of the 48-page, animal-themed debut issue in May of last year. Five more issues have followed, each with themes, among them Monsters, Spheres, and Resilience. The latter includes a profile of Wilma Theater artistic director Blanka Zizka, an appreciation of Spam (the eating, not deleting, kind), and “Beloved,” a meditation on storytelling by Jared Michael Lowe.

“That piece was born of a conversation I had with Heather," said Lowe, 33, a writer and Northern Liberties resident. “I was telling her about my grandmother’s collection of Toni Morrison’s novels, and Heather said, ‘Why don’t you develop this as an essay?'"

Lowe, who also wrote a story for the magazine about Philly fashion designer Nancy Volpe Beringer, said he loves the collaborative process at the heart of RQ. “We’re a collection of individuals who have distinct perspectives," he said. "Before the pandemic, the space for all of us to convene was over a glass of wine at Heather’s.”

Blakeslee, 46, grew up in Central Pennsylvania and has lived and worked in Philly for 20 years. She said RQ seeks to be serious, stimulating, and, despite its lofty mission, unpretentious. “I want the magazine to be accessible to my readers in Bloomsburg,” she said. “I want it to be a space where people can offer different points of view — an opt-in space for a community of people who are hungry for more productive forms of communication.”

Said Foley, 33: “I’ve always been wary of political polarization and I’ve always enjoyed talking to conservatives" as well as progressives.

"But because of the way digital [media] operate, you can find a niche that perfectly suits you, and hang out there all the time,” he said. "It’s kind of like always eating junk food and never having vegetables.”

Alexandria “Alex” Yarde handles the marketing of the magazine and calls RQ "a distillation of conversations that are often about difficult things.” The 27-year-old South Philadelphian added that “racism and climate change are not pretty topics, But at RQ we talk about them like adults and frame them in a way that is conversational, as opposed to confrontational.”

Clearly, RQ also is a place for writers to stretch, or perhaps meander, and for readers willing to follow. In the Resilience issue, a frank essay connects Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem “Howl” with the pandemic, as well as with a personal struggle to recover from alcoholism.

The Spheres issue deep-dives into the local businesses and institutions on the four corners of 45th and Walnut in West Philly, and includes a visit to the Academy of Vocal Arts, a Center City cultural treasure that nurtures operatic talent. And last fall’s Monsters issue offered stories about the Mütter Museum’s catalog, the treasure that is Ray’s Coffee Shop, in Chinatown, and a long essay by Blakeslee and Foley about the commercial considerations powering the online outrage industry.

“I hope this magazine spurs readers to have conversations at home,” said writer Ginger Rudolph, 44, a West Oak Lane resident and lifelong Philadelphian. Her RQ pieces include a clear-eyed review of last year’s “30 Americans” showcase of Black artists' work at the Barnes Foundation. “I would love to think readers are reading more, thinking more, and discovering more,” Rudolph said.

Diana Lu, an urban planner who wrote the Ray’s Coffee and the Spam stories, among others, said she’s jazzed to be “interacting with a community of other contributors … and a readership that wants to be [engaged].”

“What I love with RQ is getting to write in the 'I’ voice, and folding in personal histories among the reasons why a place like Ray’s is a destination,” said Lu, a 33-year-old West Philly resident. An ideal reader is “someone who has the curiosity and the patience to take their time” with the magazine, she added.

So far, RQ has attracted what Blakeslee describes as hundreds of subscribers. But it’s not yet close to the 2,500 target, and the pandemic has interrupted single-copy sales in local bookstores and other retailers. COVID-19′s disruptions also have ended, for now, the revenue stream of RQ-sponsored events.

But being cited as one of the “best new magazine launches of 2019” by Library Journal (other honorees included a Danish art and architecture magazine) was a great boost; Blakeslee is confident RQ can continue publishing at least through the end of next year. And 2020′s pandemic, racial reckoning, and political warfare underscore the value of a magazine like RQ, she said.

Meanwhile, the theme of the end-of-the-year issue — Apocalypseisn’t intended as a warning, but as a spark for conversation. “We want to explore the idea of apocalypse not as the world ending" said Blakeslee, "but what the next revelation and vision will be moving forward.”