Ehud Sperling couldn’t find what he was looking for in physics classes. He had a half-articulated question about the ultimate nature of reality — the secret reality beneath or behind ordinary reality — but as he listened to lectures about atoms, energy, and the laws of motion, he felt the answer getting further and further away. He switched to psychology. Pysch classes didn’t help him with his question either. Then he went to Donald Weiser’s bookstore.
“Weiser’s was the place to find out,” Sperling recalled, now more than 50 years later. “At that point in time, we’re talking in the late 60s, there was no other place.”
Weiser’s New York store sold occult books. There, you could find tomes on the traditions and technologies of magick. There were books on astrology and astral projection, tarot, the secrets of Egypt, the traditions of Gnosticism, spirit channeling, and the wisdom of the gurus of the East. The sign out front said “esoterica” and “orientalia.”
Donald Weiser died on April 12 at the age of 89. His death was little noted, except for an item in Publishers Weekly and an intimate memorial with friends and family. The truth is, though, that Weiser and his book business changed the religious landscape in America.
Occult beliefs and practices have a long history in the United States. Religious studies professor Catherine L. Albanese argues the occult — sometimes called “metaphysical religion,” sometimes “New Thought” or “New Age” — is a critical but ignored part of the country’s history of spiritual seeking. “Metaphysical religion,” Albanese writes, “is at least as important as evangelicalism in fathoming the shape and scope of American religious history.”
At the start of the Civil War, for example, a spiritualist newspaper listed 345 working mediums. There were 46 active in New York City and 42 in Boston. Outside of the eastern cities, though, there were only ever small pockets of professional occultists. Indiana, for example, had eight mediums in the small Northern towns of Elkhart, Mishawaka, South Bend, and LaPorte, plus a “spirit room” run by a former U.S. Congressman. In other places, though, occult belief was nearly impossible to find. The whole state of Minnesota had only one professional medium. Kentucky also had only one. There were none in the new state of Kansas.
Occultism remained popular into the early 20th century, but was always rather rare in Middle America. A 1925 directory of “technicians of the dawn” shows that, in many parts of the country, working occultists were all but nonexistent. There were plenty of numerologists and psychics in California. Spiritualists were easy to find in Massachusetts. New York City had three astrology societies and an astrology school, an astral-extension association, and a psychic research society with a $200 lifetime membership. But for most of the U.S., the occult was scattered, isolated, and marginal.
It remained that way into the mid-century. It could be very, very difficult to find any information about occult practices.
“It was hard to find books even in libraries,” says James Wasserman, who started exploring the occult at Weiser’s store in the late 1960s. “I think it was John Lennon who said, ‘Before Elvis, there was nothing.’ I’ll say the same thing about Donald. Before Donald, there was nothing. It’s not an exaggeration.”
Donald Weiser was raised in his father Samuel’s New York City bookstore. The Weisers were antiquarians. The occult was a specialty. When Donald took over the business in the 1950s, he decided to focus on occult books exclusively. He bought up the private libraries of collectors, especially in and around New York, and sold to other collectors. He did a good business in rare books.
He soon noticed, though, that there was another, untapped market for occult literature. Weiser’s store was attracting Wall Street brokers interested in practical applications of magic, psychologists who used palmistry, and ad executives dabbling in astral projection. There were serious devotees of voodoo and witchcraft who wanted books. There were soldiers returning from Korea and Japan who came into the store asking about English-language literature on Buddhism and Hinduism and, soon, hippie kids who wanted to know about astrology and Kabbalah.
These were people who were less interested in owning a rare copy of something unusual and more interested in getting cheap copies they could read. Weiser had the idea to start selling re-prints of rare, occult titles.
His first publication was 1956 or ’57 edition of Crowley’s “Equinox of the Gods.” Weiser had unbound sheets from two different printings of the second edition of the second volume of the book. He combined them, bound them in a new maroon cover with a gilt seal, and sold the new/old book out of his shop.
It was just the beginning. Weiser was soon publishing about 15 titles a year. They were cheap but high-quality re-prints of out-of-copyright titles.
It was good timing. In the 1960s, there were a lot of young people like Sperling and Wasserman who felt like they were collectively on the cusp of a new age. They felt like they were on the edge of a new discovery. Sperling describes it as “a whole zeitgeist that descended on a generation.” It was a kind of spiritual revival, and Weiser was the center of it.
“He was the center of this community of occultist and magicians and artists imbibing of this tradition,” said Sperling, who started working for Weiser in 1970. “Weiser’s was the place to go. Anybody that was in any way associated with the occult came to Weiser’s bookstore.”
Wasserman recalled he would drive up to the city from New Jersey to stock up on Weiser’s books. Before he went on a trip west, he went to Weiser’s and bought a half dozen books. When he got back, the first place he stopped was Weiser’s.
“Weiser was the supply source,” said Wasserman, who started working at the bookstorein 1973. “It was like a general store if you were a pioneer. You’d stock up on supplies and then you leave and go out into the wilderness.”
Weiser became the supply source for an occultist far beyond New York City. He soon was distributing his new titles to small, independent bookstores on the other side of the country. Wasserman helped Weiser with distribution, for a while. The biggest market for occult books, he said, were the 60 or 70 specialty bookstores between San Diego and San Francisco, California.
“I took three business trips to California,” Wasserman said. The first was in 1976. “I met magicians who owned magic bookstores. I met astrologists who owned astrology bookstores and Buddhists who owned Buddhist bookstores. There were lot of witches who owned bookstores. Lots of witches. That was our primary distribution market.”
At the time, each specialized shop would sell between 10 or 20 copies of a title. This didn’t add up to massive numbers of books, but enough.
It was enough that the booksellers associations came up with a category for these books, officially designating them “New Age.” It was a marketing term, according to Michael Kerber, who has been in the occult publishing business since the early 1980s: “It was just a way to categorize the books.” Very few people thought of themselves as New Age. They thought of themselves, Kerber said, as open to alternatives. They had an orientation towards exploration. Then, in their local bookstores, they discovered this amorphous spirituality had a name.
People “discovered themselves in print to be part of the New Age movement,” Albanese writes in her history of American occultism. When they did, “their ranks, seemingly overnight, swelled.”
The mainstream publishing houses noticed the swelling ranks of New Age books and, more importantly, New Age book-buyers. It was a whole new market. The publishers moved quickly to get something to sell in this category. Several presses started New Age imprints. Warner started Warner-Destiny. The big publishers each looked for specialists who knew something about the occult, to help them publish books that would sell.
Sperling was one of these early recruits. He graduated from his early apprenticeship to a position as chief taste-maker of pop-occultism. He wasn’t entirely comfortable with his new role.
“I kind of thought it was beneath me,” Sperling said. “But the way I reconciled myself to doing these pop books was that, what happens is, something captures the popular imagination, and then out of that mass of people, there’s a core that goes, ‘oh wow,’ and stays with it. They want to know something of the deeper mysteries. The pop books are a way to reach out to people.”
The mainstream publishers had more access to more bookstores, with a distribution network that stretched out from New York to all the urban centers in America. That broader network meant a lot more sales than an independent publisher like Weiser had ever seen.
Sperling had an early success with “Pyramid Power,” by Max Toth and Greg Neilsen. The book, which promised to reveal the “secret energy of the ancients,” sold 100,000 copies the first year.
“People started wearing pyramid hats and it turned into a kind of little craze,” Sperling said.
“Pyramid Power” went on to sell more than one million copies. Another hit was a book about astrology in the Bible, “To Rule Both Day and Night,” written by Joel Dobin, a Reformed rabbi educated at Princeton. The mainstream success was enough for Sperling to launch his own independent publisher, Inner Traditions.
The mainstream success of pop occult books was also enough to open untold numbers of new people to occult beliefs and practices. People who didn’t have access to an astrology bookshop or who might have been intimidated by a Wiccan store would be interested in books on astrology or witchcraft in a big, general bookstore.
“The fact that these books are available fosters people’s spirituality,” Kerber said. “It opens a doorway that they really weren’t quite sure about.”
Once the big publishers sold New Age books to chains, the small occult publishers were able to sell through those channels too. By the mid 1980s, according to Kerber, about a third of occult books were selling at chain bookstores. Mall outlets, such as B.Dalton’s, sold a lot of books. Weiser’s publishing was grossing $1 million, annually.
In the next decade, there was a notable increase of people who identified with occult beliefs. In their polling, Gallup found the number of people who believed there were mediums who could communicate with departed spirits increased 10 points in the 1990s. Belief in witches went up by 12 points. Half of Americans said they believed in extra-sensory perception and almost a third said they believed in clairvoyance.
As Wasserman puts it, “now everybody’s mother-in-law is into tarot.”
There are multiple explanations for this cultural shift. For Sperling, it seems like there was a change in the zeitgeist, like the turn of a new decade brought out new anxieties, new desires, and new spiritual longings. For Wasserman, there is a spiritual explanation. A longtime member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, an occult group that follows the revelations of Aleister Crowley, Wasserman said he believes a “spiritual hierarchy” is “looking to advance humanity.”
“I know that’s an optimistic point of view,” he said, “but it’s one I hold truthfully, in my better moments.”
There is also a more materialistic explanation for the social change: the rise of the suburban super-bookstores. Borders launched its chain of superstores in 1985, first with a store in suburban Detroit and then with another in suburban Atlanta, growing rapidly from there. Each store carried up to 150,000 titles. Barnes & Noble had 23 superstores by the end of the 1980s and 358 by 1995. The chains’ book buyers each had miles and miles of shelves of fill. They bought books from every category, so the stores all had sections of New Age titles.
Kerber, who took over Weiser’s publishing after Weiser retired, said that each new suburban superstore increased occult publishers’ sales by about 30 percent. The chains also carried occult books into Middle America, giving most of the country reliable access to occult literature for the first time.
“Lo and behold,” said Kerber, “when astrology books are there, people buy it. Tarot books are there, people buy it. People didn’t know what they were looking for. What’s available to them is what’s on the shelf.”
Maybe there was a new interest in the occult. Or maybe people have, all along, felt like they had these half-articulated questions about the ultimate nature of reality and just never had access to the occult answers.
When Amazon and the internet ended the reign of the superstore in the early 2000s, occult publishers had an established market of white, suburban, middle-class readers. Weiser’s — celebrating its 60th anniversary in publishing this year — now sells 3,000 to 5,000 copies of an average new title. The company does even better business with the backlist, selling 1,000 to 2,000 copies annually of occult books first printed 20, 30, even 50 years ago.
Today, the occult books that were once nearly impossible to find are readily available throughout America. Books on magick, Wicca, Gnosticism, Egyptology, Thelema, might technically be “esoterica,” but really they are available wherever books are sold. Weiser was kind of an eccentric figure, a little known, independent publisher. But he and the young people who trained with him made these once-strange options available to every spiritual seeker.
Daniel Silliman is a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University. A U.S. Historian, he studies American religion and culture.