Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ed Romney was a friend of mine

Actually, I never physically met Ed Romney, although I did have several wonderful telephone conversations with him and, in later times, corresponded with him via email quite extensively on any number of fascinating subjects.

Ed was an old man. Not chronologically: he was in his early seventies when he died, circa 2003, and I first encountered his work when he probably had just turned fifty or so. But he was like a very old person, a living dinosaur from an earlier era. His thoughts and knowledge were those of two or three generations earlier, of working-class New Englanders who were toolmakers and millwrights and patternmakers and skilled tradesmen, and he knew that he was the last of a breed not dying but extinct. I think he felt a great kinship to the last passenger pigeon, which lived on in a zoo after its kind had been exterminated in the wild in a lurid example of Garrett Hardin's tragedy of the commons.

Despite this, Ed was an innovator who selectively adapted technology to suit his goals and needs and honestly earned a decent living being himself. His one big innovation, twenty years before Don Lancaster's howling over "book on demand printing", was-book on demand printing. He wrote do-it-yourself books on several topics, but mostly, and most successfully, on repairing cameras. Romney, upset at the ridiculous offers made him by traditional tech publishers like G/L-TAB, simply laid out his books two-column up with a garage sale typewriter, pasted up photos shot mostly with old view cameras he'd rigged up, and copied them on a good quality Xerox copier and GBC bound them.

It had its disadvantages, of course. Anyone with weekend access to a company Xerox and a GBC punch could make pirate copies, and many did. And the content of some of his books varied over time, while the title didn't. Finally, libraries in particular eschewed his books, not for their content so much as the fact that GBC-bound materials simply aren't circworthy. Occasionally a library would have them professionally library-bound, but ususlly they just refused to replace them. Ed earned a tiny place in Johnson County history, in fact, when a Johnson County Library libararian mentioned Ed in the same sentence as Madonna in a newspaper interview on why the library was withdrawing Madonna's aluminum-and-wire bound missive, Sex. Both authors' works just couldn't be put on the shelf, she averred, as they would fall apart.

Ed later wrote a book for Paladin Press-the survivalist house- on "How To Live On Practically Nothing". It proved ballast for the beleagured gun-nut press and gave Ed a stream of income that he didn't have to run his Xerox all day to achieve.

Ed said what he thought and believed what he said. Consequently, he was demonized by numerous groups, including the camera-dealers his DIY camera books infuriated, photography magazine editors (he had a long-running contretemps with Bob Shell, that ended only when Romney was dead and Shell in jail-but not over each other) and Usenet idiots who were just apopletic that anyone not sharing their politics would pollute their sacred hobby. Romney was far better received among antique radio buffs, who tended to be more conservative apparently, and his DIY antique radio book is regarded as the best out there despite some pretty serious gaps in its coverage of radio theory.

Ed posted to Usenet in his later years and received quite a bit of vicious feedback over it. In fact, I learned of his death via Usenet, but it was a fair amount of time before I found out he really had died, because for years people had been posting notices that he had died-some having a great ring of versimilitude-and most of us just ignored them by then. Because Ed wrote, printed, and sold his books directly out of his house, it was widely believed these were attempts to crimp his business by deterring casual readers from ordering. Ed did die, relatively young, and his widow maintains his website and sells his books as though nothing had happened. However, I think the best outcome would be if some publishing house were to put out a properly hardbound, acid-free archival edition of Ed's major works, making them libraryworthy and suited to long-term preservation. (Since Ed's Xerox books are toner rather than ink based, they are unlikely to survive decades of shelf life even if they don't fall apart.)


At 7:27 PM, Blogger normzone said...


I was looking at my "fix your own Mamiya" manual that I bought from Ed Romney, and went searching for him tonight.

I agree, hardbind his works. And I'll always treasure the handbound book and set of basic tools I bought from him

At 9:42 PM, Blogger joe dupont said...

I'm sorry to hear of Ed's death.
Im looking at his book right now..
Living well on practically nothing.
That was one of those books that gave you hope.


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