History Of the Whole Earth Catalog and The Birth of West Coast Publishing

I wrote this article 27 years ago, so to bring the first sentence up to date, “It was 48 years ago…” Egad!

Its purpose was to describe the impact of the Whole Earth Catalog on a number of people, including me, and the birth of west coast publishing in the late ’60s. I ran across it recently and thought it might be of interest in helping people connect some of the dots — especially younger people, who may have heard of the WEC, but don’t understand its significance.

It was 21 years ago, a cold, dark, early December evening when I walked into a semi-vacant storefront in Menlo Park, California. A sign out front said “Whole Earth Truck Store,” but there was no truck, no store, just an army-camouflage VW bus and Stewart and Lois Brand and a ton of books piled around in the back room. I was a dropped-out San Francisco insurance broker turned builder. I was about 10 years older than the inspired and visionary kids who were moving and shaking up America at the time, but I’d got the message and in a few years preceding that evening had latched onto many of the elements that were fueling the cultural, metaphysical and epochal revolution of the times.

I had just built a homestead, then a geodesic dome workshop in Big Sur, was tending a garden, listening to rock & roll, making weekend trips to Haight Ashbury, reading The Owner-Built Home, Organic Gardening & Farming Magazine, The Oracle, The East Village Other, The Dome Cookbook, The Green Revolution, getting food by mail from Walnut Acres, listening to Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan, discovering B.B. King, Ali Akbar Khan, Buddhism, Alice Bailey, astronomy, astrology, prisms and Ashley automatics, learning about ferrocement, wind electricity, solar heating … what a time it was!

Having run a base newspaper in the Air Force, I had a journalistic bent and as all this information began manifesting in the mid-60s and, especially since people were starting to write me for dome building instructions, I thought I’d mimeo up some fact sheets — so I didn’t have to write every person individually.

Stewart saved me the trouble. He had more information, a game plan, the financing, and went on to publish the first Whole Earth Catalog in fall ’68. (I still have that crude, funky and by now tattered first edition—one of my treasured books.)

It was an instant hit. Contributing to this were Stewart’s pithy haiku-like reviews, and very accurate and complete access information on all the books and items reviewed. I joined forces and went on to edit the Shelter section of three of the catalogs. To go back a bit further while still in this “credit-where-due” mode, The Dome Cookbook by Steve Baer in early 1968 gave me the first flash of insight. By God, I could do a book like this! Funky typewritten text, grainy photos, handwritten afterthoughts in the margin—just do it!

Stewart was also obviously influenced by this 11″×14″ staple-bound account of Baer’s mathematics and the building of chopped-out car top domes in Colorado and New Mexico. It sold for $1.

At the WEC I learned about typesetting, design, editing, on-the-spot paste-up and dealing with printers. In 1970 I published Domebook One and a year later Domebook 2, both with my friend Bob Easton, and found myself in the publishing business. That’s where I still am today—it all began with Stewart, Hal, Annie, Cappy, Fred, and Steamboat and it led a surprising number of us into permanent publishing careers.

That’s the personal and specific of it. The general and significant of it is (was) the birth of nationwide distribution of West Coast books. When the Fall 1969 WEC sold 100,000 copies in four weeks, New York’s attention was got. New York meant major distribution muscle. Agent Don Gerrard signed the WEC up with Random House, then under editor-in-chief Jim Silberman’s lead, and I followed with Domebook 2, starting my 30-year relationship with Random House as our distributor. Anybody’s Bike Book, Living on the Earth, The Tassajara Bread Book, The Massage Book, Shelter and others all burst onto the national scene in the late ’60s-early ’70s.

It was as if CBS had given a dozen homemade West Coast videos prime time. It marked the beginnings of Ten Speed Press, Shambhala Publications, and our own publishing company, among others. Until then, there were no timely, hip, quickly and organically produced West Coast books that were in tune with the times and getting major national distribution—books not conceived, edited or censored in NYC. It was a revolution, one greatly aided and abetted (and overlooked by the press) by what germinated in that Menlo Park storefront in 1967.

See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_Earth_Catalog

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

8 Responses to History Of the Whole Earth Catalog and The Birth of West Coast Publishing

  1. Dear Llloyd,

    A brief footnote and bookend to the WEC history. As a kid in Ohio, I devoured the Catalogs my father brought home. What an impact! I ended up living in a tipi in the Ohio woodlands as a direct result of the WEC and Shelter (no small matter that tipis were never intended for a damp forest environment). When I emigrated to California in the eighties, I was reading the Whole Earth Review. Later on, I worked for the Millennium WEC through Harper SanFrancisco. And finally, I landed a job as art director at the (last gasp) Whole Earth magazine. It was a dream fulfilled. Though Stewart Brand had long distanced himself from the final run of the magazine, the legacy was strong. Luminaries such as Jared Lanier and J. Baldwin stopped by our tiny office. Editor in chief, Peter Warshall, delighted me with stories of late nights with Richard Brautigan in Bolinas. The magazine was doomed, though, as we only had the budget for black and white pages, with occasional full color special sections. It seemed that each issue might be the last one. I worked on 8 of the quarterly issues and thankfully left before the final issue, which was never printed as the operation ran out of cash.

    Peter Warshall passed away on in April 2013, but he was involved in another great project which you and your readers will appreciate, the Northern Jaguar Project. This group seeks to protect the interrelated ecosystems that allow big cats to flourish on the southern border of the U.S. Please check them out! If you love jaguars, you will be richly rewarded.


  2. Stewart's vw bus had a bumper sticker that said: "200,00 Indians Can't Be Wrong", which was a reference to peyote. I met Stewart and his bus and his wife in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, where he came to ask Kesey's advice about his new idea for a whole earth catalog, which he described as being like LL Bean, only bigger.
    So sad to see that Stewart has become a huge paid apologist for nuclear industry.
    And you mentioned Fred, an old Stanford friend, where is he now?

  3. I loved the WEC,it so inspired me to seek the nomad life and move to the country,all the wec books I have are totally falling apart from numerous browsings ,it was the internet of the past,everything you needed for figuring out how to live out in the bush,finally found our place 30 years ago …off grid ,farming,love it ! Thanks for Whole Earth

  4. My parents in New Zealand recently gave me their copy of the last whole earth catalog and two of the nz version. As a child of the 80s and the internet, its hard for me to understand just how important these books were. I love reading them and trying to picture those days. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. If one's notion of living life well is to have a positive influence on the world around them then I'd say you're "living the dream". I think it's still contagious.

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