RIP, Atomic Ed Grothus, curator and proprietor of the Black Hole of Los Alamos

Tom "FidoNET" Jennings sez, "Atomic Ed Grothus died in his home today, age 86, after a long illness. If you have never met Ed, or visited Los Alamos Sales Co, better known as the 'black hole' (as Ed said, 'things come in, and never leave') your life is poorer. Artist, curmudgeon, proprietor, anti-nuke activist, Ed was a pain to those who deserved it and a friend to the rest of us. Even his 'enemies' (loosely speaking of course) admired or at least respected him, as he was always honest, spoke truth, and was never afraid. Ed you SOB we miss you already."

Ed Grothus, the legendary proprietor of the Black Hole, a long-standing Los Alamos NM fixture, artist, anti-nuke activist and irritant to death-and-bomb culture proponents of his chosen home town, died at his home today after a long illness.

Ed was well respected by all, even by those whose work he opposed, and his grouchy but amused countenance will be missed by all that knew him. The world is a poorer place without him. He was thrilled to live long enough to see Barack Obama sworn in as president.

Ed Grothus, 1923-2009 (Thanks, Tom!)


  1. That’s a shame..I’ve carried a link to his site on my blog for a while and always planned on stopping in my next time down in Los Alamos, it’s only a few hours away. I hope someone carries on the store.

    For those that don’t know, LA is a crazy little town nestled in beautiful woods on the edge of wilderness parks. It is quite beautiful considering the work that is done there…

  2. You could never go in there without Ed teaching you something. Whether it was watching a movie that he “smuggled” out of the labs or listening to an explanation of how he and a friend built the Jacob’s ladder by the entrance, you always found out something new. Take it easy, Ed.

  3. There was another notable anti-nuke obit a few days ago: Guy Chichester of Rye, NH, one of the founders of the Clamshell Alliance, which was the first anti-nuke movement in the US to catch the popular imagination. Boston Globe’s obit here:

    I got the chance to interview Chichester a few years ago. Remarkable man. Carpenter by trade, self-taught intellectual and thorn-in-the-side of the rich and powerful. (Before the Clams, he was also a leader in a successful effort to block the construction of a giant oil refinery on the New Hampshire seacoast, which would have radically changed the character of the entire region.)

    The Clams fought against the Seabrook nuclear reactor. They delayed it for years, and their efforts led to the construction of a single reactor instead of the originally planned two. No nuclear power plants have been built in the US since Seabrook, and the Clams get a goodly share of credit for that.

  4. I was able to meet Ed and buy a few items from the black hole in the summer of 2000, the whole area had been burned from forest fires, Ed asked me where I was from, I said “New York City” , he quickly pulled out a Spencer Tunik Photo that had recently been shot at the Black Hole, a nude woman standing next to a giant war head. He said, you think this is Art? When I looked up from the photo to reply he had walked away. A while later I had a odd number of surplus items to purchase before we left, and it seemed like Ed was pricing them on the fly as I checked out. I started to haggle over a gasmask, and he lowered the price a few dollars, but then told me that the arm long gloves I wanted were not a few dollars more, with a smirk on his face. He was a real one of a kind character, and getting to go to the Black Hole, and meet him was a priceless.

  5. :(

    The Black Hole is a must stop for anyone in the area. My wife and I went there two years in a row when we in New Mexico to see the Trinitiy Test Site. I’ll always remember walking in and having Ed greet us with a hearty “Welcome to the Black Hoooooole”.

  6. I was there around New Year’s and The Black Hole was still going strong, although the guy working there was very anti UN and very suspicious that a guy I was with was French and therefore not to be trusted. He tried to sell me some dosimeters and said they would come in handy to give to all my friends in case “they” attack our college classrooms.

  7. I only ever met Ed once; I needed an analytical balance. This was shortly after digital balances had become so common that the old Mettler mechanicals were on a virtual fire sale. He hauled one down off a shelf, and after examining it, it seemed perfectly functional. He quoted me $400, and I intuitively laughed because I thought he was kidding; it was maybe worth $40, at best.

    He wasn’t kidding. I went home empty-handed.

  8. I was lucky enough to meet him when I drove across the country this past summer; we made a significant detour up to Los Alamos just to spend an hour or so in the store, totally worth it. When they were closing up, and we were getting set to resume our journey, Ed came up to us and brought us to see the Doomsday Stones that he had made and told us their story.

    Thanks Ed, from someone who is as equally awed and terrified by the power of the atom.

  9. Growing up with Ed
    For a youngster living in the same neighborhood as the Black Hole, the rules were clear: you didn’t go there or the crazy old guy would yell at you and chase you off. But hey, after his son was killed he deserved a little sympathy, right? When you were slightly older, he would tolerate your presence if you made it clear you came armed with cash, changing him into the crazy old guy with a pile of cool stuff. And when your home was destroyed by the Cerro Grande wildfire and Ed Grothus subsequently looted the smoldering remains of your neighborhood while the National Guard turned a blind eye, his true self was revealed: a very small, very bitter old man who had earned the respect of everyone… except his neighbors. Subsequently, you spend the rest of your life wondering how this creep became such a popular meme.

  10. In the 80s I used to rent a house from Ed in White Rock when I worked at the labs as an electronic tech. He has all kinds of weird one-of-a-kind devices strewn about the back yard. We didn’t interact with him all that much, but you could feel the weight of his fascinating obsession with historic LANL tech.

  11. Patriot738: Nice one!

    Caveman Robot:
    …he quickly pulled out a Spencer Tunik Photo that had recently been shot at the Black Hole, a nude woman standing next to a giant war head. He said, you think this is Art? When I looked up from the photo to reply he had walked away.

    Awesome. Sounds like a Charlie Kaufman bit.

  12. I wish I had a chance to stop at the Black Hole when I lived in Santa Fe…

    Passing through Los Alamos and driving past the tech areas on the way to a late night Jemez Hot Springs adventure is a fond memory.

  13. I got a few A-bomb detonator cables from him a few years back. Weird dude, cool “store.” Los Alamos is a very strange place, but beautiful.

  14. –> theretroblog: that wasn’t ed, that was probably frank. frank is, let’s say, very vigilant. he is basically a nice guy but he has some odd hypotheses.

    –> patriot738: I don’t doubt your experiences as a kid with grouchy old Ed chasing you off. But looting? Sorry, I was around then, and what Ed actualy did was, defy the authorities, drove around with tanks of water in the back of his truck putting out spot fires (not necessarily rational). He also checked out whose house had burned or not and informed them directly so the wouldn’t have to hear it from TV. He was eventually arrested for defying police orders. He actions were all well documented. If you’ve got actual evidence I’m sure authorities would love to hear about it; in the mean time why not keep your personal problems to yourself?

  15. I grew up in Los Alamos and though I don’t live there anymore this is sort of a shock to me. He was curmudgeonly, and I too was warned to stay away from that place and that crazy old man. Which is of course why I went. :) We tried on old radiation suits and dug through boxes of name and date stamps, almost useless because the dates stopped at 1989 and the names were obviously someone else’s. I’ll never forget him sending the can of plutonium (a classic Los Alamos gag gift) to President Clinton. He was cantankerous but I’ll also always remember how kind he was to my friend after his father, a customer of his, passed away.

  16. I used to work for Ed in High School. He was a good guy, a fun boss, an interesting character, and a friend. He will be missed.

    I wrote about him during my last trip to see him in 2007:

    Also posted a little tribute to him today:

    RIP Ed.

  17. I didn’t know the guy but he looks like he kept a nice shop for geeks like me. So he was “admired or at least respected” by all, huh? patriot738 shows that that isn’t true.

    To Cory, tomic & others: Sorry for your loss but painting the guy as being universally respected is a crock. Even Mother Teresa had her detractors.

    Either stop misrepresenting the people you like/love as saints and the people you dislike as evil personified or learn to accept being criticized for your overblown rhetoric.

  18. @VOIDPORTAL I’ve been in that house you rented from Ed in White Rock. When I was there it was no longer a rental house, but a storage unit for Ed’s awesome collection.

    They did a sweep of the house with a scintillator for kicks and came across a jar with a disk of highly radioactive metal in it. Turned out to be a few grams of weapon’s grade uranium!

    Ahh I miss Ed. What a character.

    I just talked to my friend and fellow ex-Black Hole employee Don Orie and let him know about Ed’s passing. He has been visiting him every week for the last month as his illness progressed. He is going to let me know about the funeral/memorial arrangements and I will post an update here and on my blog when I know more.

  19. I met him last year, great guy. Couldn’t hear anything, you had to yell at him for him to understand. He couldn’t stop talking about these great granite peace obelisks made in China and shipped over (still sitting in shipping crates.) Amazing man.

  20. I spent the majority of my summers as a kid In the southern CO northern NM part of the country. My dad has a college buddy that worked at the lab in LA and we would always go and visit ed’s place. I think that is where I got my knack for DIY and computers. Ed was a little nuts but a wonderful person, the world is a little crappier than it was yesterday.

  21. Sad to hear that.

    Coudal made an absolutely lovely little video about ed & the black hole which is worth a watch:

    Seems like he was a complex character, not without his enemies, but you don’t get to be the sort of person he was without having that sort of thing happen.

    Does anyone know what will happen to the black hole in ed’s passing?

  22. Where else but the Black Hole can you go in a public place and have them open up the vault to show you Yellowcake? Seriously.

    I live in Santa Fe and my house is littered with stuff from the Black Hole. Ed was still there around October/November of last year, but you could tell he was having a hard time. He didn’t follow us around as much or try and scream at anyone. He quoted us some incredibly fair prices on half of what we picked and outrageous prices on the other half. It is my hope that this one of a kind establishment stays around.

  23. Here is Ed’s obit, from his son Mike:

    Edward Bernard Grothus, of Los Alamos, died of cancer at home, at peace and surrounded by love on February 12, 2009. He was born June 28, 1923 in Clinton, Iowa. His family moved permanently to Davenport, Iowa in 1930.

    Following graduation from high school, he traveled extensively by ship and motorcycle. He attended the University of Iowa where he (most importantly) learned to play bridge and made lifelong friends. He eventually followed his father’s trade as a machinist, the trade that brought him to Los Alamos in 1949. “Working at the Lab,” he said, “gave me an education that I could get nowhere else.” He met Margaret Jane Turnquist playing bridge in Los Alamos. They were married in 1951. In 1952 he began working at the Lab’s R-Site where he was a link in the process for making “better” atomic bombs. By 1968, he had become an antiwar activist and was an alternate delegate for candidate Eugene McCarthy at the notorious Democratic Convention in Chicago. He left LASL in 1969 when his conscience could no longer tolerate his role in nuclear bomb development. Since then, because of his singularity in speaking out against the nuclear mission of the Laboratory, he became the most interviewed and photographed person in Los Alamos.

    Ed was a hardworking and successful entrepreneur who invested in “things.” A child of the depression who extolled thrift and hated waste, he established the Los Alamos Sales Company in 1951 to buy and resell things–mainly surplus equipment from the Los Alamos Laboratory. For many years the company operated as a catalog business, selling to universities world-wide. He typed and mimeographed pages that were assembled into catalogs by his children who also assisted with mailing, packing, and shipping.

    Ed took an active interest in the community. When the government began to plan a subdivision for individual owners to develop, Ed got involved. He helped name the streets on Barranca Mesa and purchased the lot on which he built the first adobe home in Los Alamos. He took great pride in his plans and designs for the house, seeking to make it as durable, functional and maintenance free as possible. Nearly 60 years later, the house remains a testament to his attention to detail. Ed was a founding member of the do-it-yourself home builders association known as “The Nailbenders.” Later, in a new area known as Pajarito Acres, he was the first to build a home with the intention that it would be a rental property. When government houses came onto the market, he bought and sold those too, and upon his exit from the Laboratory, he and Margaret used proceeds to purchase The Shalako Shop which they operated for thirty years.

    In 1973, he purchased the Grace Lutheran Church property which he first called “The Omega Peace Institute” and later named “The First Church of High Technology.” In 1976, he acquired the adjacent “Mesa Market” property, which remained a grocery store for two years. When the grocery operation ceased, the Los Alamos Sales Company began moving things into the building. In recent years, the operation became known as “The Black Hole,” because “everything went in, and not even light could get out.” The business is well-known to set-decorators, artists, inventors and tinkerers, and tourists from around the world. He worked at the business six days a week until his illness forced him to slow down in late 2008. He never stopped thinking about the business despite his physical absence from it.

    Ed refused to abandon The Black Hole during the forced evacuation of Los Alamos in 2000 when the government-set fire devastated the mountain landscape and burned more than 400 residences. The fire burned up to the foundation of the Black Hole, but Ed’s vigilance kept the fire from consuming it. He was arrested after the fire passed and was sentenced to community service for “refusing to obey a police order.” He had predicted such a disastrous immolation and had encouraged the County to build a perimeter road as a fire barrier. He strongly fought the use of salt on snowy streets because of its killing effect on trees and the subsequent erosion of soil and further environmental degradation.

    Grothus was most known for his antiwar and antinuclear activism. He was a frequent writer of “Letters to the Editor” and in 1966 wrote “An Ode to a Leader, Misleading,” dedicated to President Johnson. In it he wrote “. . .search and destroy, ignoble duty . . .” His motto became “Semper Fabricate, Numquam Consumite” or “Always Build, Never Destroy.” As an early Obama supporter, Ed was pleased to note in his inaugural address that President Obama said, “. . .people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.” Despite his antiwar and antinuclear stance, he never called for the closure of the Laboratory. He said the Lab should stop making things useful only for killing, but he supported a mission for scientists to more efficiently harvest the energy of the sun, the infinite power source.

    Grothus designed and commissioned two granite obelisks to mark the explosion of the first atomic bomb. The obelisks were quarried and carved in China, then shipped to Los Alamos in December 2007. The obelisks are white granite and are designed to sit on black bases, “doomsday stones,” engraved with text in 15 languages that describe the “most significant man-made event in human history.” Important to him among the messages engraved in the stone was, “No one is secure unless everyone is secure.” When erected, each monument will weigh over 39 tons and stand nearly 40 feet tall. At the time of his death, Grothus remained optimistic that the obelisks would find a home.

    He was featured in numerous international magazine and newspaper articles and stories on national radio and television. He has appeared in various historical books, as a character in novels and, thanks to a variety of international artists, in theaters, galleries and music productions. He also has a significant presence on the internet. He was the subject of two documentaries including “Atomic Ed and the Black Hole,” by filmmaker, Ellen Spiro, broadcast on HBO. He was also the subject of investigations by the FBI and Secret Service on several occasions.

    In 2006 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Indigenous World Uranium Summit for his work to promote a Nuclear-Free Future. In 2007, he was humbled to be the first non-Native American to receive the prestigious Alan Houser Memorial Award from the Houser family at the annual Governor’s Awards in the Arts for the State of New Mexico.

    He was proud of his family with whom he enjoyed traveling, working, exchanging thoughts and opinions and sharing challenges and successes. Ed’s deafness, “my only problem,” was a cruel burden, not just for him. A voracious reader and life-long learner, his intellectual curiosity and interest in ideas, “things” and world events remained strong even as cancer consumed all his energy. “Dying,” he said, “is not very exciting.”

    The eldest of eight, he was predeceased by his parents, Edward Theodore Grothus and Regina Hebinck Grothus, his son Theodore, his grandson Preston Edward Burns, and his brother Joseph Grothus. He is survived by Margaret, his wife of 57 years, his children Barbara Grothus of Albuquerque, NM; Tom Grothus (Wendy Slotboom) of Seattle, WA; Susan Burns of Albuquerque, NM; and Mike Grothus (Heidi) and their children, Casey and Michelle Grothus of Niwot, CO. He is also survived by three sisters, three brothers, and their extended families. Loved and admired by many, despised by a few, he will not soon be forgotten.

  24. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, April 4, 2009 at 2:00 PM in the Duane W Smith Auditorium at the Los Alamos High School.

  25. I grew up in Los Alamos, too, and for years my father wore a watchband purchased as a special birthday gift at the Shalako Shop. One of the only voices of dissent in an otherwise securely “company town,” Ed Grothus was a constant, daily, sometimes hourly reminder that people can change and that institutions should and could change also. Dispised and feared by many in Los Alamos, Mr. Grothus nonetheless provided an invaluable counterpoint to the otherwise monolithic presence of the laboratory. The town will be diminished in his absence and I wonder if anyone has the ability or courage to pick up his banner.


  26. That is terribly sad news for his family, and for the world. Such a unique place he has built, and a unique character he seems to have had.

    I wish I hadn’t procrastinated, I was hoping to visit and see that wonderful store and its colorful owner someday. Hopefully, he left a legacy that will be faithfully continued by his successors. I would hate to see such a wonderful little place like that disappear.

  27. Didn’t get to meet Ed, but he sounds interesting.
    Funny thing I noticed, Google Earth doesn’t show The Black Hole in a street view even though all surrounding areas are viewable… Govt censorship, national security issues, c o n s p i r i c y ?

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