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When The Sun’s founder, Sy Safransky, came to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the early 1970s, he was a disillusioned former newspaper reporter from New York City with idealistic dreams. One day he and a friend named Mike Mathers decided to try to start a magazine. They tossed around some names — The Sometimes Sunshine was one — and put together sixteen pages of material exploring the topic of “Energy.” Sy typed it all up, and Mike drew illustrations and cartoons. They spent fifty dollars on paper and photocopied two hundred issues. The hand-drawn cover includes a quote adapted from a Leonard Cohen song: “We are locked in our suffering and our pleasure is the seal.”
Thus, in January 1974, The Chapel Hill Sun (as it was then named) was born. The cover price was a quarter, and, according to the back cover, $6.50 would get you a one-year subscription of twenty-six issues. (Just seven came out in the first year.) The early issues were small in size but had big themes: “Money”; “God, Religion, and the Search for Enlightenment”; “Work”; “Love and Sex.”
In 1978 Mike moved on. But Sy forged ahead, bringing the magazine out more regularly, adding more pages, and striving to make every issue “a reminder that even as we celebrate life we must do everything possible to reduce suffering.” The subscriber list grew slowly. In 1979 a group of business students from the local university asked if they could look at The Sun’s finances for a class project. In their assessment, the “continued operation of the publication relies entirely on the efforts of Safransky, who faces a monstrous undertaking.” Those students predicted the magazine would not last another year. But in the coming decade The Sun would stay afloat. When Sy ran out of money, he would appeal to his readers, who responded with donations not just of cash but of cookies, clothes, and household items for auction. Benefit events, grants from the North Carolina Arts Council, and the efforts of volunteers also sustained the magazine. And Sy sometimes took up part-time jobs, such as digging ditches, to help pay the bills.
One of the Arts Council grants proved to be a turning point, as it allowed the magazine to reach new readers with direct-mail brochures. The Sun could no longer rely on index cards to keep track of its growing readership. By the end of the 1980s the magazine had ten thousand subscribers. Then, in the June 1990 issue, Sy announced a surprising business decision, one that had taken him sixteen years to make: The Sun would no longer carry advertising. He explained that he wasn’t condemning advertising but sought “to shine a clearer light, to publish a magazine that was wholly reader-supported.” He wanted “every page to express a kind of attention, a kind of clarity, that with or without advertising is hard to achieve.” If those business students had known of this development, their prediction would surely have been even more dire.
Our subscriber list has grown far beyond what it was then; we now have seventy-two thousand names on it. The staff is larger. The look of the magazine may have changed, but its content hasn’t traveled far from its roots. It continues to explore those big, unwieldy themes, offering glimpses of the mysterious and maddening and magnificent experiences that connect us.
Zen Buddhists have a chant of gratitude they often recite before meals. It begins, “Let us reflect on our own work and the effort of those who brought us this food” — an acknowledgment of the individuals who plant and grow and harvest the crops; who sort and lift and transport the bounty to market; who sell and buy and chop and cook, all so that we can fill our bellies.
As The Sun turns forty, it’s obvious that countless labors have kept the magazine alive — and not just the labors of its staff. There are also the writers sitting at their desks, trying to put into words the enigmatic dilemma of human existence. And the photographers peering through lenses, striving to capture a moment, an expression, a certain quality of light they may never see again. And the benefactors, large and small, who’ve donated time and money to the magazine over the years. And the people who work at our printer and who manage our subscriptions. And the bookstores and newsstands that sell the magazine. And the truck drivers and letter carriers who get the magazines to the stores and mailboxes and eventually to our readers.
All of this would amount to nothing were it not for those who engage with the magazine every month, not only reading attentively and with an open mind but responding with letters and with the risky, raw, and honest testimonies that appear in our Readers Write section. People seem to feel a personal connection with the magazine, perhaps because the magazine is still trying to create “a place where we can come together without masks,” as Sy wrote long ago.
The Sun staff, gathered on the front steps of the office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Left to right; front row: Carol Ann Fitzgerald, Rachel J. Elliott, Sy Safransky, David Mahaffey. Middle row: Erica Berkeley, Andrew Snee, Becky Gee, Krista Bremer, Paula Jolin. Back row: Molly Herboth, Dave Hart, Robert Graham, Colleen Donfield, Luc Saunders, Holly McKinney. Not pictured: Gillian Kendall, Seth Mirsky, Angela Winter.© Rachel J. Elliott
The Sun staff, gathered on the front steps of the office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Left to right; front row: Carol Ann Fitzgerald, Rachel J. Elliott, Sy Safransky, David Mahaffey. Middle row: Erica Berkeley, Andrew Snee, Becky Gee, Krista Bremer, Paula Jolin. Back row: Molly Herboth, Dave Hart, Robert Graham, Colleen Donfield, Luc Saunders, Holly McKinney. Not pictured: Gillian Kendall, Seth Mirsky, Angela Winter.
Forty years. Four hundred fifty-seven issues that represent an immense amount of exertion, devoted not to filling our stomachs but to nourishing our spirits and encouraging human kinship.
To celebrate this milestone, we asked writers to send us their own personal stories of perseverance. We wish this anniversary issue could be bigger, so that we could include more of them. (To make as much room as possible, we’ve left out Correspondence this month.) To start, we have an interview with Sy, who still guides each issue to publication. In the middle we’ve devoted a few pages to lists that tell the history of The Sun over the years. At the end you’ll find a special Sunbeams section featuring quotes from pieces we have published. And on our website (thesunmagazine.org) you can download a copy of the first issue as a pdf. (Just look for the hand-drawn cover.)
What has kept The Sun going for four decades? The perseverance of its founder and editor? Of course. The efforts of its staff? That, too. But also a community so large we can’t acknowledge everyone; a community that has sustained for forty years this shared endeavor we call a magazine. Thank you for being a part of it.
— The Editors