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Lloyd Kahn on 20 Years of Whole Earth Catalog

Lloyd Kahn publishes books from his owner-built house (not a dome) mostly books on exercise, stretching and body-building these days, He's still working on shelter ideas. Encapsulated in this brief history of his relation to Whole Earth is the archetype of similar stories from many others.

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 VIA' 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 Street, 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...remember?

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 info, I thought I'd mimeo up some fact sheets. Save the trouble of writing people individually.

Stewart saved me the trouble. He had more information, had a game plan, 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.) I joined forces and went on to edit the Shelter and Land Use sections 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 gave me the first flash of insight. By God, I could do a book like this myself! Funky typewritten text, grainy photos, handwritten afterthoughts in the margin - just do it! Stewart was also obviously influenced by this 11 x 14" staplebound account of Baer's mathematics and building of chopped-out cartop domes in Colorado and New Mexico. It sold for $1.

At the WEC I learned about typesetting, design (and editing)-on-the-spot, pasteup and dealing with printers. In 1970 I published Domebook One and a year later Domebook 2, both with Bob Easton, and found myself in the publishing business. That's where I still am today some 12 books and 1,400,000 total copies later. 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 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 Living on the Earth, The Tassajara Bread Book, The Massage Book, Shelter and others all burst onto the national scene. It was as if CBS had given a dozen home-made West Coast videos prime time, 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.