Discover Austin: Keep Austin Weird - Episode 43

You've likely heard, seen, worn, or said, "Keep Austin Weird," but where did the phrase originate?  This episode of Discover Austin explains who first used the iconic phrase and what it has come to represent for our city.

If you'd prefer to read about Keeping Austin Weird the transcript can be found below the video.

Other Discover Austin topics mentioned in this episode: The Cathedral of Junk, Peter Pan Mini Golf, and Nau's Enfield Drug

Keep Austin Weird.  This slogan is one of the first things that visitors learn about the city.  You see it on T-shirts, bumper stickers, inside of local businesses, and its regularly spoken by Austinites.  So it must have been created by a large ad agency with a big budget, right?  Well, no!  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Back in 2000, an Austin librarian named Red Wassernich phoned into a local radio program to make a donation during a pledge drive.  When the DJ asked him why he was donating to the show, he simply responded “I don’t know.  It helps keep Austin weird.”  And that was the beginning.  For Red, he simply thought that Austin was starting to change in a way that made it more commercialized and less cool.  This is certainly echoed by many longtime Austinites who believe the explosive growth of the city has come at the cost of changing the feel of the town.  So Red loves things that help Keep Austin Weird.  In fact, Discover Austin have already covered a few places he cites on his website. Places such as the Cathedral of Junk, Peter Pan Mini Golf, and Nau’s Enfield Drug.

In 2002, a few local businesses picked up on the phrase.  The owner of Book People used it as a keep-it-local phrase to rally objection to a big box bookstore that was planning to open a few blocks away.  The owner of Waterloo Records soon joined him in the cause.  They originally printed 5,000 bumper stickers with the slogan and the tagline “Support Local Businesses.”  It didn’t take long for to fly off the shelves.  As a side note, hundreds of thousands of the bumper stickers have sold since then.

Red didn’t try to profit off the slogan.  But in 2003, a local company filed a trademark to use it shirts and hats.  Red wasn’t happy about it as he preferred it remain part of the public domain, but didn’t have the resources to fight it.  As a result, there’s only one company who can produce and sell the iconic shirts.

You may already be aware that several other cities are using this slogan, but let’s be clear that it started in Austin.  Perhaps the second best known use of the phrase is Keep Portland Weird.  As it turns out, the owner of Waterloo Records had a good friend who owned a small business in Portland.  He loved the phrase and the hook for buying local, so he took the Austin phrase and Portlandized it!

Of course, what specifically helps to Keep Austin Weird is really subjective to each Austinite.  The man who coined it wanted to keep the commercialization of the city at bay.  Then two business owners used it to encourage folks to shop locally.  Over the past few decades, as Austin has changed, I think it really is just a way for Austinites to try to keep as much of old Austin alive and active.  To keep the very reasons that made Austin weird, cool, and desirable from disappearing as a victim of its own success.

Keep Austin Weird:  A few words spoken off the cuff that have become a catch phrase for the whole city.  I’m Craig Smyser with RE/MAX Capital City.  Thanks for joining me for this episode of Discover Austin.

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