THE catalog James Lawrence found in the rooming house where Peace Corps volunteers to Colombia stayed when they were in town was different. It gripped him the way no other had. In fact, he stayed up all night poring over it, for the first time oblivious of the bugs that shared both his room and his bed. It was a copy of ``The Whole Earth Catalog,'' listing sources for a wide range of hand tools and other low-technology equipment designed to make living in the country a whole lot easier and more rewarding. The items were most appropriate for the work he was doing in Colombia with the Sibundoy Indians. And though Mr. Lawrence didn't realize it at the time, it was the also spark that launched him on a remarkably successful publishing venture, first in Canada, and since January 1986, in the United States.
Harrowsmith magazine was founded on the kitchen table of an Ontario farmhouse 11 years ago with, as Lawrence puts it, ``one doubtful advertiser, 707 subscribers, and total financial backing amounting to a collateral loan on a used Volvo station wagon.'' But he did have the firm conviction that there was an unsatisfied demand for the sort of publication he planned to offer: A magazine that spoke to people in a way that would enrich their lives in the country. He was right.
While the US already had magazines aimed toward readers living in the country, Canadian readers had nothing comparable. Harrowsmith quickly became one of the most talked-about success stories in Canadian publishing, winning some 60 awards, including ``National Magazine of the Year.'' Within a decade, its circulation had risen to 155,000, making it the most widely read special-interest magazine in the country.
And now, after little more than 12 months, the US Harrowsmith, described as a ``magazine for northern living'' is pushing the 200,000 mark and Lawrence appears to have judged correctly again.
But he's quick to point out that for the US Harrowsmith to equal the Canadian success on a pro-rata basis, the circulation would have to approach a million for the region it serves.
Harrowsmith set up its US headquarters and editorial offices in a former creamery in this pleasant Vermont town late in 1985, putting out the first edition in January of the following year. The major competing magazine, Country Journal, had changed ownership and, in Lawrence's view, lost some of its drive and enthusiam. In addition, he believed he had something different to offer.
Denis Meecham, the first managing editor of Blair and Ketchum's Country Journal, a former editor of Horticulture and now a professor in the Mass Communications department of Boston University, agrees with the latter assessment.
Country Journal, he says, caters to the ``second-home market, people who are indulging a dream [of country living]. Harrowsmith speaks to people who are already living in the country.'' What he terms ``the slow unraveling'' of Country Journal also contributed to Harrowsmith's early success in the US.
When a magazine is sold, he says, the vision and enthusiasm of the founders seldom go with it. According to Meecham, this is especially true in Country Journal's case. ``It's now one title in 10'' magazines controlled by the new owners.
Joe Hanson, editor and publisher of Folio, a magazine about magazine management, is cautiously optimistic in his assessment of Harrowsmith. ``I like what they're doing,'' he says, but it's getting subscribers to renew that counts. A year or two down the line and we'll know for sure.'' Mr. Hanson reads and likes both magazines. ``I personally prefer Harrowsmith but perhaps that's because I'm more of a farmer at heart.''
As Meacham sees it, the impetus is now with Harrowsmith because ``Lawrence has the vision and the enthusiasm.'' How far will this vision and commitment take Harrowsmith? ``There's a small but dedicated readership for this type of magazine,'' Meacham says. In his estimation, circulation ``will never go over half a million. In its heyday, Country Journal never exceeded a quarter million.''
In moving into the United States, the Harrowsmith editors decided to stick with what they knew best: the part of the US that most resembles Canada in climate and geography; those regions, in other words that have four seasons and know what winter is. As Tom Rawls, editor of the Vermont-based publication, puts it, ``we specialize in northern living the way Southern Living caters to the South.''
What Harrowsmith's largely upscale readers (most are college educated, living in the country, but commuting to a job in town) get is thoroughly researched, often probing articles on shelter, gardening, country skills, and food.
It's a journal that requires some investment of a reader's time. As Mr. Rawls puts it: ``We still believe in text, in the value of the written word. We don't feel you can take away three-quarters of the text and make up with illustrations.'' An article on converting a barn into a house, for instance, will be as liberally illustrated as in most other magazines but may well have twice as much copy.
``I hate to sound like I'm buttering up my editor,'' says Harrowsmith contributor Mike McRae, ``but Rawls has a good feeling for what his writers can do and enjoy doing. He'll call up with an idea and we'll talk it back and forth for maybe an hour. When we're through, the original idea may be changed, but it's one we're both comfortable with. We know it will work ... and it does.''
Story ideas come from would-be contributors, occasionally from readers, but principally from the editorial staff. For example, take Californian Bryan Jay Bashin's long, hard look at supermarket fresh produce that appeared in the January-February issue. What he came up with made illuminating but not necessarily pleasant reading. It had some positive comments for frozen foods and very few for ``fresh,'' primarily because freshness is an illusion. It reinforced the value of growing at least some of your own food.
The idea surfaced some months back in editor Rawls's mind. ``We're all told to eat fresh. But what exactly is a `fresh' vegetable?'' he asked himself. He wouldn't know until it was researched. He also wouldn't know if the story was worth printing until much time and money had been spent on research.
Mr. Bashin was given the nod and told to delve deeply. His month-long research took him in person and by phone all across the country. Rawls's editors spent another 10 days checking and cross-checking before ``The Freshness Illusion'' went to press.
This kind of journalism wins the magazine much praise and inevitably some criticism. Under a ``Farewells Department'' heading in a recent issue, a reader took umbrage with an article on American farmers' reaction to some ``high-handed'' tactics by highway patrols and SWAT teams. The reader branded it a ``yellow-journalism tirade'' that was ``sensationalized garbage. Cancel our subscription,'' the letter concluded.
Rawls doesn't like getting those letters any more than any other editor. But In presenting what he believes are the honest facts, Rawls is ``not afraid to lose a reader.'' Not that he believes he'll ever lose too many this way. The 20 percent circulation jump last year surpassed the projections of publisher Lawrence and the signals are all there for another strong year.