More than four decades ago, Jack and Linda Jones, then a newlywed couple who met at the University of Texas at Austin, were ready for a new adventure together. They got hands-on help raising capital from Jack’s brother, Joe, and another friend, Walter Wakefield, and took inspiration for their venture from two unexpected sources: a catalog and a horoscope.
The catalog was the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture publication popular in the 1960s and ‘70s that promoted individuality, education, and environmentalism. In one issue, according to Whole Earth Provision Co.’s website, the catalog encouraged interested readers to “go ahead” and open bricks-and-mortar Whole Earth stores so customers could have a place to buy the books and other items sold in the catalog. The horoscope, meanwhile, came from Vogue magazine and provided clear direction to “Quit your job and start a new project.”
That formula, however unconventional, proved extremely successful for the group of young entrepreneurs. In December 1970, they opened the doors to the first Whole Earth Provision Co. store, located a block from the UT campus, offering an eclectic selection of items like travel and how-to books, massage oils, and baby carriers. Ten days later, the store’s shelves were empty, and eventually the store began stocking outdoor and camping equipment like hiking boots, backpacks, and tents.
Some 45 years later, the original Austin store is still going strong—along with eight other Whole Earth locations across the state.
“It was a heady time in Austin in the 1970s, and I think Whole Earth fit right into that culture of the 1970s,” says Bert Peeples, community outreach coordinator for Whole Earth and a longtime employee. “It was counterculture, but it was a legitimate business right from the beginning, because we’ve always believed in high-quality products, not things that have to be replaced every year.”
Linda Jones, sadly, passed away in December 2010, but Whole Earth remains a tight-knit, family-run business with a solid reputation as a trusted resource in the communities it serves. In Houston, the company has been a well-recognized name among the city’s outdoorsy types since 1985, when it opened the first of two locations, located in the Neartown neighborhood. The second was opened in 2008 in the Galleria area.
Like all Whole Earth stores, the Houston locations stock a well-curated selection of gear, supplies, and equipment that appeals to active-minded types who love to travel and explore the outdoors, as well as many artisan, Fair Trade items like jewelry and accessories. The aisles are also full of all sorts of whimsical, quirky items that are more about fun than function, from kites to handmade wind chimes. Personalized, knowledgeable staff, as well as the brand’s longstanding reputation as a strong community member, help keep customers coming back.
“There are some national chains that follow us around and come into the same neighborhoods where we have stores, but people really appreciate our local ownership and a family-type atmosphere, and customer service with technical things like a GoPro camera or hiking boots,” Peeples says.
Unlike many traditional outdoor retail outlets, Whole Earth also is known for its unique selection of books and an inviting, no-pressure environment in which customers can enjoy perusing them.
“We’ve always been known as a browsing store,” Peeples says. “We’re also known as a bookstore, with an eclectic offering of kids’ books and how-to books for all sorts of things, how to garden, how to cook. So we have a lot of people come through on their lunch hour, just browsing and looking at books. We don’t hassle people, and we encourage them to just hang out.”
In addition, Whole Earth is an active partner with many environmental and outdoor-centric nonprofits and other groups throughout Texas. During the month of April, for example, the stores run a drive to support the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. One of its most popular events is the Banff World Tour, which features local showings of films from the Banff Mountain Film Festival at venues in Houston and Austin. Now in its fourth year, the fundraising effort is expected to bring in more than $100,000 in contributions, Peeples says.