February 17, 2018

LJ Talks to Red Wassenich

By Norman Oder

Austin, TX native Red Wassenich has been a librarian for 24 years, and now works as a reference librarian at Austin Community College. But he’s probably best-known for inventing the oft-borrowed phrase “Keep Austin Weird.” Now he’s authored Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town, published by Schiffer Books. And he took all the photos, including shots of the Cathedral of Junk, which is exactly what it sounds like, and Leslie, the semi-homeless perennial mayoral candidate who habitually wears a thong. LJ‘s Norman Oder recently caught up with Wassenich to discuss his book and his catchphrase claim to fame.

LJ: How’d you come up with the phrase?

RW: In the spring of 2000, I was making a donation to a local volunteer radio station. I was listening to the Lounge Show, which plays very strange music. I called up to make my donation, and they asked, ‘Why are you donating?” I said, “The show helps keep Austin weird.” I mentioned it to my wife and we decided to print up bumper stickers. I’ve never tried to make money until this book thing, and I’ll be lucky if I break even.

But other people have used the phrase, including a company that trademarked it for t-shirts, and also some local businesses.

I’ve never tried to push myself too much. It’s the importance of the movement. The reasons there’s “Keep Boulder Weird,” etc., is due to a really good independent bookstore, BookPeople, and a really good independent record store, Waterloo, which started using the phrase to promote shopping local, as opposed to chain stores. They printed up bumper stickers that said, “Keep Austin Weird: Support Local Businesses.” It was very successful.

How’d the book come about?

The publisher had read a magazine article about how other cities adopted the phrase, “Keep ___ Weird” and it mentioned me as the originator. So the editor called me up.

How do you describe the book?

A: It’s kind of a skewed version of a traditional guidebook to a city, as the subtitle says. Probably every town has two or three odd events. There just seems to be an inordinate number of them here in Austin.

For example?

The O. Henry Pun-off, this horrible contest where people make excruciating puns—it’s been going for 30 years. A classic one in Austin is the Spamarama, which has games like Spam-toss, or Spam-cram, a contest to eat a can of Spam the fastest. And there’s cooking contest, which has two categories: people who actually try to make the Spam taste good, and the crazy category where people make the most disgusting thing, like Spam daiquiris.

You say Austin is changing?

Austin is hippies, rednecks, punks, high-tech people, blue-collar to some degree. But it’s a real boomtown right now, which refers to the “Keep” part of “Keep Austin Weird.” It’s a little too driven by money, for my taste. I’m more of an old hippie.

Are you notorious on campus?

I very successfully still fly under the radar. On the web site, I don’t even have my name. People are generally surprised and amused that the person who came up with the cool phrase is—gasp—a librarian. I did get the president of my college to pose for a picture holding up a “Keep Austin Community College Weird” calendar.