Cold Water and Scarce Erasers

By Williamson, Joe | Sunset, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Cold Water and Scarce Erasers


Williamson, Joe, Sunset


As a grand institution grows and matures, legends develop, some of them true, some embellished. I'm going to pass along a few Sunset tales from the "Lane years," 1928 to 1990. That's when the company belonged to a family of four: the founder, the late Laurence W. Lane; his wife, the late Ruth; and their two sons, Bill, now 79, and Mel, now 78.

I showed up at the Sunset offices in San Francisco in June 1947, a WWII veteran racing toward a journalism bachelor's degree in order to get a job on an editorial staff. After that summer - what's now called interning the editor told me to come back as fast as I could.

A low-budget, war-rationing mentality still prevailed. We were hand-issued all supplies. In August I asked for a new Pink Pearl eraser, and Madelaine - the stationery czar - reluctantly gave me one, grumbling that she had just issued me one in June.

In 1951, Sunset moved from San Francisco to its brand-new offices on a 7-acre site in Menlo Park. Some penurious ways continued in our new surroundings. We had a phone trunk telephone line to San Francisco. The PBX operator kept a list of the day's applicants for the "city line," and she served them in order. But there were ways to get moved up the list: tell her a racy joke or listen to one of hers.

Through the 1950s, the magazine grew faster than the staff. We did our scouting and research in the daytime, then wrote our copy in the office at night. We knew the janitorial staff as well as we knew each other. Editorial lights didn't go out and parking places didn't typically empty until about 11.

We always tried to write for the guy I called the "sweaty eyebrow reader." Our business was supplying answers. You ran a story on a plant, or a process, and you got the guy out in his yard deciding to plant the thing and all of a sudden he can't remember how deep, how far apart. He's got to look at the magazine. …

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