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Down-to-Earth Books, a Short History

1970 to the Present*

Down-to-Earth Books has a history. Its first incarnation in 1970 was as a natural foods store I called the Down-to-Earth Natural Foods Store. I had always wanted to have a store of my own, and it just seemed the right thing to do to set up a natural foods store connected with the Free School in downtown Albany. I fell in love with macrobiotics and began buying quantities of grains (short-grain brown rice, kasha, oats, rye and winter wheat berries to be ground freshly in my second-hand grinder), beans and peas (aduki, black, pinto, lentils and black-eyed peas), nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans and sesame seeds), dried fruits (apricots, prunes, raisins, dates, apple chips, dried ginger), Japanese seaweeds (nori, wakame, dulse and kombu), bottled, dried and canned flavoring ingredients: tamari or shoyu (soy sauce) umeboshi (salt plum), bonita to flake (dried tuna) - and macrobiotic cookbooks like Michel Abhesera's Cooking for Life. All this gloriousness came from a huge, fascinating warehouse in Boston called Erewhon, which I even got to visit. I found or built huge bins and barrels, storage jars and crocks to store things in, and we were in business in the front room of our school building, which was an old former black church building on Franklin Street in the South End. That store is still in existence, serving mainly the community in Albany that sprang up around the school, housed four doors up the street from the school.

My love of enterprise and publicly available resources at low prices had moved from natural foods to books by the time Nancy Ost joined us as a teacher at the school. Nancy had managed a local natural foods store for many years, and was a natural for its management. By this time we had acquired several buildings around the school itself and fixed them up ourselves as adjuncts to the school in one form or another. The first such building we bought, for $1200 back taxes, was a four-story row house in pretty sad shape. Restoring it took a decade, since we had no sources of grant money, but it gave us a magnificent base for both activities and income well worth ten times its cost in money and sweat. We named it The Family Life Center. At present it houses income-producing apartments on the top two floors for its three community managers; Matrix, a pregnancy and childbirth center (including a birthing room and a birthing pool), a meeting room for parenting groups, baby massage etc. and a lending library on a wide variety of topics on the main floor; and the Down-to-Earth natural foods store on the basement level. Nancy, Betsy and Connie share in the ownership and management of this building.

So the title Down-to-Earth moved to books, while leaving intact its natural foods reference. I had written a children's story entitled Jessica Dragonette's Fiery Breath, a Fable for Little Girls who Love their Daddies, in 1984, but had only printed a few hand-built copies to give to my kids at the school and my grandkids. This book, which eventually became my first publication from Down-to-Earth Books, was not to be published in its final form until 1993, although it was registered in Books in Print at that time, as was another book entitled Rushing to Eva, which first saw the light in this same hand-built form, also in 1984, but was not published in its final form until 1992.

1984 was in many ways a watershed year for me. I had learned about the Great Mother from a book by Merlin Stone entitled When God was a Woman, lent to me the previous winter by an English friend, and a book entitled Needles of Stone, by Tom Graves, also lent me by my friend, about a stone circle called The Rollrights, near Chipping Norton in the Cotswolds. These books were eye-openers for me. Graves had done quite a bit of research on the energy aspects and possible earth-enhancing functions of stone circles, focusing especially on the energy phenomena he had observed at The Rollrights.

I decided I had to find out for myself what was phenomenologically real and observable,and what was primarily esoteric tradition. I did more reading by people like John Michel, Michael Dames and Caitlin and John Matthews in the field of energy at sacred locations, and about stone circles, standing stones and ley lines in Britain, in which the authors refer to these phenomena as though they were well-known and accepted. And finally, that summer (with a great deal of trepidation), I sought out an amazing dowser about whom I had previously only read - Bob Ater, called "The Wizard of Bath" - in downtown Bath, Maine, the next town over from Brunswick, where my family owned property.

Bob was a dowser of such astounding talents that he could find lost objects by dowsing their location on a map! He turned out also to be an outstandingly kind, gentle person who took me right under his wing, made me a willow wand, took me downhill to the Bath city park and had me find TWO streams of underground water there with the willow wand! He also showed me graphically, using two coat hangers, the energy grid we live in, all unknowingly, of a succession of "male" and "female" energy streams that enliven our planet and form the basis for the intangible life stream the Chinese call Feng Shui, which is becoming increasingly understood in the west now in terms of the energetic qualities of our living and building spaces - as it has always been in China.

Enlivened by this sense of contact with living earth energy, I made plans to visit the principal sites of sacred Goddess energy I had been reading about - in England, France and Greece. I decided to use my newfound power of direct experience via dowsing to "speak" with the spirits of these sites and to receive a response from them in their own "language." It turned out to be an awesome pilgrimage! I found myself moving through a kind of metaphysical world of altered perception that was teaching me about a dimension of life I had never known existed, but which felt spread out before me everywhere I traveled! Even before arriving back home I had begun writing up my adventures in a school notebook I bought in a shop in Athens.

That fall I began writing up both my dragon story and my Great Mother pilgrimage on my new Apple 2E, hand-bound them as paperbacks with a cover I designed and printed on my copying machine, declared myself a desktop publisher, and actually registered my first titles with the Library of Congress and Books in Print! I also started my quarterly, SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education, using the same equipment, hand-binding and distribution, with a lot of help from community members. For this one, however, I had the covers printed by a local printer, a big step!

Finding a printer I could afford to reproduce and bind my books in 1989 and moving to a Mac that summer were big steps in upgrading their appearance as "real" publications! Through the years since then, the books have taken on an increasingly less amateurish look to them - but not entirely. I still do my own formatting and cover design, and have only gradually learned how to make my graphics look professional! Part of the motiva-tion of my publishing endeavor was to demonstrate that publishing itself did not neces-sarily entail vast expenditures of capital to succeed, nor even vast prior technical exper-ience - that costs and technique could both be created as one went along, a bit at a time. And it is true that I have always kept my returns from sales ahead of the costs of publishing, even with poor resources for distribution and publicity.

* Also Down-to-Earth Herbs (q.v.)

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