Thursday, May 23, 2024

Loompanics! The Story of the World’s Most Extreme DIY Books

Loompanics was your go-to one-stop shop for ‘grey area’ and ‘very black indeed area’ books for thirty years. At this risk of this sounding like one of those cataract-viewed pieces which suggest everything in the old days was better, pre-internet, to find out anything beyond the mainstream, whether it be weird films, bootlegged music, or counterculture books, required a certain amount of digging. This almost always required sending off an SAE to an address that may or may not exist to receive a catalogue of what was available. What you received in return could be little more than a scrawled list of what someone had for sale (think eBay but with crayons) or, if you were lucky, a nice stapled catalogue of a world you didn’t know existed. Tiny typewritten listings of gigs recorded on string and yoghurt pots pressed onto butterscotch-coloured vinyl; 9th-generation video nasties on unmarked video cassettes which required 90 minutes of you pressing the tracking button and swearing/crying; books promising you ways to unpick locks, build a bazooka and decipher codes. What?!

Loompanics was founded by publisher and editor, Mike Hoy, in 1975 in East Lansing, Michigan. A self-proclaimed anarchist, he named the company after National Lampoon magazine, at the time one of the premier vehicles for cutting satire. Thinking ahead, he thought that it may help his advertising in the magazine by incorporating ‘lampoon’, though circumstances meant that the magazine flew the roost well before Mike had dug his nails in.

The aim was always to challenge the norm – to question authority, and the government, and to forge your own path. Above all, it rallied against censorship and asked that people be allowed to have all the information possible to make their own decisions. Initially, Mike published relatively thin volumes written by himself, as well as selling questionable books from other publishers which fit in with his own mindset. The business grew to the extent that larger premises and distribution were required and in 1982 he moved the business to Port Townsend, Washington, on the recommendation of his friend, R. W. Bradford, future publisher of Liberty magazine. By now, Hoy was being sent manuscripts directly from authors and had developed a catalogue of books which covered an extraordinary variety of subjects but always written with great care and knowledge – usually as the writer had significant personal experience of their given subject.

Loompanics specialised in non-fiction, in fact, many of the books could be considered ‘do it yourself’ manuals. How to avoid paying tax; how to fake ID; how to hide things (like, REALLY hide things); how to manufacture drugs; how to make your own weapons – these weren’t books you’d ever find in stores. However, it wasn’t all crime, hedonism and illegal practices – there were guides on self-sufficiency, one of Loompanics’ biggest sellers being ‘Rancho Costa Nada: The Dirt Cheap Desert Homestead’ by Phil Garlington, a guide to building a life in the dust by a man who had lived that life through no fault of his own. There were volumes on living sustainable lifestyles – ‘Dumpster Diving – The Advanced Course’; ‘How to Build an Underground House’; ‘How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found’. There were guides to self-publishing; homeschooling; cooking food in the wild; even founding your own country.

Once you’d found Loompanics, you became part of a secret guild. As well as a rather hefty annual catalogue, you’d be sent thinner volumes periodically of recently-published books or pamphlets or those about to sell out. It was quite overwhelming as to where to start and even though you had no intentions, it was difficult to resist learning how to make explosives, pick a lock or read about the lives of obscure eccentrics or religious crackpots.

Of course, Amazon’s limitless inventory means that some of the unwieldy books Loompanics distributed are now easily available (sometimes, admittedly, at a healthy price) – John Fisher’s guides to uninhabited islands; John Q. Newman’sBe Your Own Dick: Private Investigating Made Easy‘, Jan Bondeson’s books on human deformity. Nothing to spook to horses, as such, but books which otherwise were unlikely to be stocked by mainstream bookstores ‘back in the day’. Those that did attract suspicion led to Hoy being investigated and interviewed by both police in Europe and the FBI – he was found to have committed no crime in publishing the books in both cases. “Sold for information purposes only!” was regularly emblazoned on both books and their catalogues,  a bit like ‘Have I Got News for You’s’ use of ‘allegedly’ – unlikely to help much in court but better than nothing.

In 2006, Mike Hoy called it a day. Ironically, the ability to advertise his wares to millions more potential customers was stifled quickly by Amazon, eBay and Google, who weren’t risking having any books which might get them into trouble on their platforms. In any case, the secret information contained within much of his inventory was now free for all to read on the internet without so much as a self-addressed envelope required. At 60 years of age, Hoy was unwilling to adapt to a digital world and his stock was sold off to both individuals and other publishers.

Hoy was once asked what he thought the implications were of a child getting hold of one of his books on drug manufacture:

In the first place, I do not sell to fourth graders, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that I did sell a copy of ‘Secrets of Meth’ to a 9-year-old – what could the “harm” possibly be? Here is a brief excerpt from that book:

‘Another way of doing the electric cell method of turning the propenyl benzene into phenylacetone is given in the Journal of Organic Chemistry article, Volume 49. If, at the conclusion of passing current through the reaction mixture, a little 1% solution of sulfuric acid is added and stirred for an hour, the product of the cell in 98% yield of the same glycol by the formic acid and peroxide method.’

That is from page 72. Now, I submit that if we had a fourth grader who could actually understand that passage, what we ought to do is give that kid a state-of-the-art laboratory and get the hell out of his way. A guy like that might discover a cure for cancer, or something. A phenom like that ought to be encouraged to study chemistry.”

Daz Lawrence 

Fill your Loompanic boots here!

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