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.