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.

I
t 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”x14″ 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.

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

  1. Jeff Bragg says:

    Do you mind if I reprint this on my blog?

  2. Lloyd Kahn says:

    Sure, OK to reprint so long as you reference the source.

  3. Jeff Bragg says:

    Absolutely! It would be my pleasure and honor to tell them where it came from!

  4. Anonymous says:

    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.

    Stefan

  5. Anonymous says:

    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?
    Aloha,
    mauisurfer

  6. earth farmer says:

    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

  7. Farmer Liz says:

    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.

  8. Anonymous says:

    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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