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Letter to All Our Readers from Richard Wright

Friday, September 4, 2020

After 40 years and 480 issues, Village West Publishing/Hearth & Home is no longer. The lights have been flicked off, the key turned in the lock; what is left are the memories, primarily of friends throughout Canada and the U.S.

Memories of the thousands of products seen and discussed will fade quickly, not so the thousands of people we encountered along the way. It may have been with a quick introduction in an elevator (which happened many times), or a friendship cultivated for decades. They all blend together under the word “friend.”

My thoughts go back to the beginning (December 1979) when we published our first issue of Wood ’n Energy (that was also the birth of the Wood Heating Alliance that later became the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association – HPBA). The cover was an illustration of Benjamin Franklin working on his Franklin Stove (it was really a fireplace). It was done by D.B. Johnson, a New Hampshire boy who would do many more covers and article illustrations for us.

My thoughts also go back to the first trade shows when few of us knew what they were doing. Those shows were entirely about hearth products.

Many retailers quickly recognized that they needed a counter-seasonal product, or products, to sell. Some (most?) picked barbecue, some patio furnishings, some picked wine, some ski equipment. Many stayed only with hearth products, and even today about 50% of hearth dealers only sell that product line.

In 1989 we started covering the patio furnishings industry. Our first stop was always at Brown Jordan to see what Richard Frinier had created, then over to Woodard. The difference between then and now is absolutely dramatic.

About a year later we started covering the barbecue/grill industry. The same is true about that industry. Today we have outdoor kitchens that rival – or surpass – what’s in the indoor kitchens. Those three industries – hearth, patio, and barbecue – provided the retail network with terrific options.

There was one project in which we played a small part, and in which the hearth industry can take great pride.

The small town of Libby, Montana, was out of compliance with EPA regulations. The town had a population of approximately 3,000, and almost everyone in town was burning wood; 1,200 or so old wood stoves were belching black smoke. Libby is in a valley, and that smoke would linger for months; residents told us they couldn’t see the sun all winter. On top of that, hundreds of residents (miners) were walking around with an oxygen tank, suffering from mesothelioma (caused by inhaling asbestos fiber).

Hearth & Home organized a meeting at an Expo with about five manufacturers, Carter Keithley and Jack Goldman of the HPBA, and representatives of the local air regulatory body, as well as the state board. It was a one-hour meeting, after which all parties agreed that the HPBA would change-out approximately 1,200 very old wood stoves for new ones, plus hearth pads, chimneys, and training.

Two years and $2 million later, the task was completed, and it was touted as a great example of manufacturing partnering with government to achieve something for the common good.

The hearth industry had arrived.

My thoughts also go to the Vesta Awards Program.

Through the 1990s, retailers would tell us they were fed up with manufacturers copying each other, and with the fact that products were mainly black boxes. For a number of years, we put together a group of retailers to be Bird Dogs at the trade show, and as they walked the show, to write down those products that seemed to be made or designed a little better than others.

We got together at the end of the show to compare notes; truth be told, there was not much worth talking about.

In 2001 we launched the Vesta Awards Program, designed to honor innovation in design and/or technology, with categories of hearth, patio, and barbecue. That first year we had 90 entries. At its peak we had 165 entries. It required 30 judges (10 groups of 3) working all day to complete the judging. During the past two years we’ve had about 65 entries. Obviously, when show attendance goes down, attendance at the Vesta Awards Program also goes down.

We’re proud of that program. We’ve been told many times that it did make a difference. Manufacturers are competitive; this was a competition. The result was that the industry left the black box behind (not all) and we started to see more creativity from our manufacturers.

We want to applaud those manufacturers who consistently innovate; they may not hit a home run every time, but in trying they take the industry a step forward. Without innovation, there would be no industry. So, retailers, stay on the side of innovation; vote with your pocketbook.

We want to thank all those who, through the years, gave up a full day of their precious time at the Expo in order to be a judge. They did so because they thought it was a program that would help everyone. They were right.

Of those in various categories of endeavor that we served for those 40 years, it’s the retailers who hold our hearts. Perhaps it’s because we always felt they needed our help more than the manufacturers, or distributors, or reps. Mom & Pop is a correct name for the majority of specialty hearth, or patio, or barbecue/grill shops. Hearth dealers have the added difficulty of keeping up with the technology, with the regulations, with local governments banning wood, or banning gas products.

The cover story of our May 2020 issue is “Women in Charge,” it was written by Mark Brock (who is no longer with us). The “women” we interviewed are all in the hearth business, and function as Owner, Co-owner, CEO, or President, and their challenges are many, and important. Our plan was, at the next trade show, to create a half-day conference that would address relevant issues brought forward in that article.

We would invite every woman in the hearth, patio, and barbecue industries – not just those in charge, but EVERYONE. We hoped that attendance would be great, and that the conference would become an annual event.

Well, the torch is passed. Perhaps it could be done virtually next March, or, if not, then perhaps live the following year. We think it’s a terrific idea. So, it’s up to you Audra Johnson, and Ingrid Schroeter, and Jeanne Grier, and Laura Litchfield, and Bev Hawkins, and all the women who are reading this.

We’ve been fortunate, for most of those 40 years, to have freelance writers who really understood the industries they covered. Most of you have met Bill Sendelback who covered the hearth industry. He’s been in the industry as long as we have – 40 years – and is known by just about everyone. He understands every aspect of the hearth industry, and is able to explain rules and regulations that impact all of us.

Lisa Readie Mayer worked with the barbecue industry before she found us; she’s been in the industry for 33 years. If there’s such a thing as the perfect freelance writer, she’s it. She always had a list of interesting articles waiting in her files, and those articles were mostly on cutting-edge topics.

Tom Lassiter was writing about furniture long before he found us, and we him; he’s been in the industry for 33 years. He is a true professional reporter/writer who makes every article he writes into a compelling story. We all learned a lot from Tom.

Those three writers/reporters made Hearth & Home into the highly respected publication that it has been for all those years.

Bill, Lisa, and Tom all understood that our mission was to provide ALL of our readers – retailers, manufacturers, distributors, reps, and others – with information to help them run their business better, and to do so with integrity.

We couldn’t have had better partners than those three people; they made my job as editor both fun and interesting.

The same could be said regarding our production department, our circulation department, our sales department, and our administration department. It’s been a fun ride.

Richard (me), Jackie, and all the employees at Village West Publishing want to thank everyone who worked with us to create a trade magazine, especially all those retailers who, month after month, took the time to tell us about their sales in the prior month; we published their words in a section called “Business Climate.”

We also want to thank all those who agreed to be interviewed (many of our interviews lasted well over an hour!), and everyone who supported us with their advertising.

We wish all of our readers great success in the coming years!


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