Despite Depressed Economy, Nature Goods Retailer Expands in Houston

Even as some retail outlets are closing, one Austin-based nature and travel retailer is opening a second Houston store. Ed Mayberry reports.

Whole Earth Provision Company has a new outlet on Post Oak, across the street from the Galleria, opening in the middle of an economic downturn.  The store's concept is based on the popular Whole Earth Catalog of the late 60s, according to store founder Jack Jones.

"And that was started by a man named Stuart Brand in California so that you could live a more self-sufficient life." 

Ed: "And this is back when people were sort of thinking of going back to the country."

"Right, that was it.  It was back to nature, back to the country life, and people were, at that time, questioning some of the institutions of our country and so he offered a set of alternatives — that you could seek your own education and your own inspiration and share it with whoever you wanted to.  He was saying you could set up your own school, you can, (laughs) or your own radio station!  You could start all these things on your own."  

Jones' son Joe says that concept lead to the store — a mix of outdoor and camping equipment, nature exploration tools like Swiss Army knives, binoculars and telescopes, outdoor clothing, toys and books on travel and nature.

"The Whole Earth Catalog came along as an access to that information." 

Ed: "And that would be everything from tools on growing your own food to how to make cloth."

"Raising your own livestock, to cook without — and live your lifestyle — without electricity, if you happen to be in someplace like that.  This was before the organic healthy food expansion of information around the country and so the catalog allowed you to be able to hold of whole grains, for instance, and grind your own grain at home.  Real basic stuff like that now, we can just walk into a store and find it."  

Joe's dad Jack says the original catalog asked its readers to get involved.

"They offered an invitation in the back of the catalog at that time and said 'we're not going to do this forever, so anybody who wants to start a store based on the Whole Earth Catalog, go ahead and do it.  We're here to give you advice if you'd like.'  And so we wrote a letter and said we'd like to start a store based on the Whole Earth Catalog, and they were very supportive."  

Jones knows he's opening it at a time when the economy is down.  There's a lot to consider.

"When we go out for a new store what we need is a location, money — in terms of financing it — and people.  You've gotta have all three.  So we go through the lengthy process of negotiating the lease — and at the same time we're laying out the groundwork, we're dealing with the bankers to get the financing right — our buying team starts buying for this new store.  You kind of herd all that activity down, so it takes the coordination of an enormous amount of sets of people.  And then the hurricane came, and all of a sudden there were no utilities."

Whole Earth opened 38 years ago; this is the seventh store. 

"We were really nailing things down this summer, so things were already starting to look iffy.  But we've chosen to open the store in Houston.  I wouldn't choose to open it in Detroit right now.  So we believe in the Texas economy and in the Houston economy and we know things may be down a little bit now, but they're going to get better."

Ed Mayberry, KUHF Houston Public Radio News.

Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...