RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Should by chance you find yourself in Los Alamos, New Mexico, don't miss the Black Hole. It's a surplus store and museum. The inventory comes from the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's foremost nuclear weapons lab. The owner of The Black Hole is also the town's most famous peacenik. For years, the eccentric pacifist and nuclear junk dealer has been a thorn in the side of the lab. NPR's John Burnett has more.
Unidentified Man: In the early years of our National Defense, the Department of Energy is charged with the responsibility of directing our Nuclear Weapons Program. The Divly's(ph) Los Alamos National Laboratory conducts underground nuclear weapons tests…
JOHN BURNETT: The most visited attraction in Los Alamos is the Bradbury Science Museum where you'll find replica's of the two most famous bombs in history, Little Boy and Fat Man - dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The next most visited attraction is the Black Hole, whose proprietor has a very different presentation.
Mr. ED GROTHUS (Proprietor, Black Hole): My name is Ed Grothus, and I've been here almost 60 years in Los Alamos.
BURNETT: He's hard to miss. Eighty-five years old with a cloud of white hair, wearing purple camo pants and a piece button on his sweater.
Mr. GROTHUS: The first 20 of those years, from 1949 to 1969, I worked in the laboratory. I came as a machinist. And I had a key role in making better - put that in quotes - better atomic bombs.
BURNETT: Grothus quit the lab in 69 over his opposition to the Vietnam War. He sold Indian curios with his wife, Margaret, for a few years, then opened the Black Hole in 1980.
Mr. GROTHUS: I refer to everything as nuclear waste. It's waste from the nuclear business. But I only sell about one percent of what I buy. And so there's been a huge accumulation of stuff.
BURNETT: Grothus is a compulsive buyer at the lab's monthly auctions of surplus government property. As a former machinist, he can't stand to see precision equipment thrown away, so he's got everything - from oscilloscopes and galvanometers to Geiger counters and centrifuges - stacked in canyons in the Black Hole.
Mr. GROTHUS: I'm still buying. I'm about dead, but I'm still buying.
BURNETT: Where do you put it? There's no more room in the store?
Mr. GROTHUS: We just piled it higher and deeper. We'll find a place.
BURNETT: The sheer quantity of stuff on his cluttered, five-acre compound is overwhelming. Most of it was used for bomb-making, though you won't find radioactive material or classified computers here. The hardware for sale is more mundane.
Mr. GROTHUS: These are vacuum butterfly valves. Look at here, brand new. They cost $325 a piece.
BURNETT: Who comes in and wants a butterfly valve?
Mr. GROTHUS: It's very seldom.
BURNETT: He named it the Black Hole because, by his own admission, everything goes in and nothing comes out. Business is a trickle, mainly tourists, artists seeking found objects, movie set decorators and the occasional craftsman.
Mr. GROTHUS: Hello. Can I help?
Unidentified Woman: Sorry to bother you.
Unidentified Man: Yeah, I just wanted to buy these gloves and buy some other weird stuff.
Mr. GROTHUS: I charge 25 a pair for them, Joe.
Unidentified Man: Sounds good. Thank you.
BURNETT: Atomic Ed is best known around town not as a junkman, but a rabble-rouser. Every August, to remember the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, he joins out-of-town peaceniks and unfurls a large banner that says, "WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE NUCLEAR BOMB." And his letters about nuclear disarmament appear in the local newspaper every few weeks.
Mr. GROTHUS: One bomb is too many, no matter who has it. They have to think a different way. I don't know whether humanity can get out of this nuclear trap.
BURNETT: The backdrop to these sentiments is a company town where the national lab supports 90 percent of the local economy, where you cruise along Oppenheimer Drive and get their glasses at Atomic Eye Care. No wonder for many people here, Ed Grothus is.
Mr. GROTHUS: Pretty much written off as a crank.
Mr. STEVE STODDARD (World War II Veteran): Oh, there's Grothus again with one of his dang letters, or, jeez, Ed's down there with his signs or.
BURNETT: Steve Stoddard is an outspoken World War II veteran and former Republican state senator. He and other vets regularly show up to counter-protest whatever Grothus has to say.
Mr. STODDARD: But you can't fault his courage in the sense that he knows he's making people angry, and he's in a town that certainly doesn't share his feelings.
BURNETT: When asked for a response to Ed Grothus, a spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory answered with a resounding no comment. The lab finds Grothus' antics tiresome, such as the time during the Wen Ho Lee spy scandal when Grothus started selling lab surplus computer discs with Top Secret stickers on them. The FBI confiscated the computer discs and later returned them. He also offends Catholics when he dresses up in a cardinal's garb, offering to celebrate critical mass at his First Church of High Technology. But even when Grothus invites descriptions of a buffoon or a crackpot, there is something fundamentally necessary about what he does, says Kyle Wheeler, she's a former Los Alamos county counselor and a retired technical writer at the lab.
Ms. KYLE WHEELER (Former Los Alamos County Counselor): He keeps writing these letters to the editor, and keeps bringing up issues that maybe a lot of people don't want to think about. So I sort of think of him as the conscience of the community.
BURNETT: Ed Grothus will probably not be around much longer. He has cancer and that has lit a certain urgency to his crusade. As perhaps his final creative protest, Grothus has produced two 32-foot tall granite obelisks, which he happily shows visitors. He opens a shipping container, in the stone is inscribed a screed he wrote against nuclear bombs, translated into 15 languages.
Mr. GROTHUS: On this front service here, you see Hindi and I tell you.
BURNETT: Grothus tried to give the ungainly monuments to Los Alamos County, but the Art in Public Places Board politely and emphatically turned him down. Los Alamos, which is trying to soften its history, prefers the motto currently seen at the town's entrance: Where Discoveries Are Made. The lab would rather talk about its research into fuel cells, or its training of UN inspectors to enforce the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Mr. GROTHUS: And here is Spanish. This is Arabic.
BURNETT: So the Doomsday Stones gather dust, as do the centrifuges and Geiger counters. But the Black Hole's fame seems to be spreading. A Polish tourist stops by to take a picture of Ed Grothus in front of the store.
Unidentified Man: Do you mind if I.
(Soundbite of camera clicks)
BURNETT: In the town where the nuclear age began, its most committed opponent remains its greatest curiosity. John Burnett, NPR News.
Unidentified Man: Thank you.
Mr. GROTHUS: You've got the sign the back (unintelligible)...
Unidentified Man: Yeah, yeah that many. Oh my God, this is very exciting.