Mind + Body + Spirit = New Age
Margaret Langstaff -- 5/15/00
Whatever it's called--alternative spirituality, conscious living--
retailers agree that the category is soaring
Relative oases in the ongoing battle between independents and the chains, "alternate" bookstores are placidly going about their business and doing very nicely, thank you. Nobody claims to be getting rich, but most stores PW contacted proudly point to steady, if not increasing, profitability.
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listing of 2000 New Age titles
"Our business is good," says Jason Smith, book buyer for the 10-year-old Transitions in Chicago, which has 6,000 square feet of books and sidelines catering to seekers of all kinds, as well as a 4,000-sq.-ft. Learning Center next door for author events and workshops. "We just keep expanding," remarks Dave Teeters, administrative manager of the 16-year-old Pearls of Wisdom in Columbus, Ohio. "Business is very good," says Sharon Lanier, co-owner with her husband of Whole Life Books in Austin, Tex., which has been open for business for 15 years and carries 40,000 items, 25,000 of them books, in 3,800 square feet. "We are very thankful," she says, "because the huge superstores are everywhere around us. But our sales are up, we're making a profit and staying alive."
Most managers attribute their stores' current vitality to a combination of intense specialization, an ample offering of related sidelines and a continuous program of author events and workshops. "We are still primarily a bookstore," says Lanier, "but we survive because we are so specialized. We offer one-stop shopping for metaphysical books. People rely on us for new book information and ask for books by topic more than they do at a general bookstore," observes Candice Apple of The Ph nix and the Dragon bookstore, open for 13 years in Atlanta. "People go to Barnes & Noble for bestsellers," says Karen Harrison of Isis Books and Gifts, a 20-year-old institution in Denver. "Our customers are looking for their alternative path, and that usually means books that haven't made it to the mainstream." According to Dawn Hurwitz, owner of Huana Ohana Metaphysical General Store and CafÃ© in Pahoa, Hawaii, "The general trade stores don't have the expertise in this area. Their clerks don't have an opinion, and we do."
Alternative spirituality stores break down their specialty into hundreds of sub-categories resulting in highly specific sections such as voodoo, the fourth dimension and birth awareness. "Compared to a general store like Borders, say, we have about the same size selection, but it's a different selection and more obscure titles," observes Hurwitz. "We are very big in breaking subjects down," says Smith of Transitions, "and use over 300 categories." At Bodhi Tree in West Hollywood, Calif., book buyer Mark Labinger says he uses "over 400 categories. And we break categories down by religion and within religion." Interestingly, the newest category on the block, "visionary fiction" (books like The Celestine Prophecy, etc.), d s not rate a separate shelf in these specialty stores. "We don't carry anything but visionary fiction," Jason Smith says. "We put it in with 'inspiration.' "
Inventory: Mixing It Up
The inventory mix of alternative spirituality stores is key to their staying power. Most carry a heavy ratio of sidelines to books, as much as 85/15, and find these "tools" for putting theory into practice are extremely attractive to customers and come with much better margins, turns and terms than books. Sidelines include candles, chimes, incense, jewelry, fountains, art, crystals, statuary, lotions and music and videos. "All of our sidelines tie in with books," says Apple of The Ph nix and the Dragon. "They are tools for personal growth and spiritual development. Stores just have to carry them," she says, pointing to the closing in January of the Sphinx Bookstore, the oldest alternative store in Atlanta. "But they carried just books," she says, pointing to what she regards as a serious merchandise deficiency.
"We carry sidelines from over 400 vendors," says Harrison of Isis, "and the prices range from 50 cents to a $1,000 geode cathedral amethyst." Harrison adds, "We make our own line of incense and oil for ceremonies and sell dry herbs for alternative medicine." Hurwitz of Huna Ohana notes that she stocks "only about 15% of our inventory in books, and 40% is jewelry, bodywear, incense-aromatherapy, cards and Hawaiiana. In addition, Hurwitz has three iMac computers for public use for a fee. "People use me as a gateway," she says. An additional factor Hurwitz has to consider in her inventory mix is that shipping books to Hawaii is "phenomenally expensive."
Author events and workshops keep alternative stores in the public eye and provide a constant steam of customer traffic. Caught by PW on the eve of Sonia Choquette's release party at the store's adjacent Learning Center for True Balance: A Commonsense Guide for Renewing Your Spirit (Bantam), Smith was arranging for the arrival of 350 copies of the book from the publisher. "We are a very busy store," he says. "We have 20 to 40 authors in a month, everyone from Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, Marianne Williamson and Julia Cameron to lesser-known authors." Transitions charges a fee for workshops that includes a copy of the author's book. Members of the store's book club receive a discount on the workshops and events. "We have 2,500 members in the club and they consistently represent a half-million dollars in sales annually," he says.
Bodhi Tree, perhaps the oldest alternative spirituality store in existence at 30 years of age, also keeps things humming. "We have lots of author events and workshops," says Mark Labinger, bookbuyer at Bodhi for 23 years. "There is something going on all the time." At The Ph nix and the Dragon, located on I-285 in Atlanta, between I-75 and I-85, owner Candice Apple says, "We have a pretty loyal clientele, a customer base of about 30,000. Our book club has 2,000 members, and we distribute 3,000 mailing pieces a month. We host lots of author events and art shows."
What's In, What's Out
As far as trends in alternative spirituality are concerned, "Things ebb and flow," observes Harrison at Isis Books, "and seem to go in cycles." Timeless titles in the field cover such subjects as yoga, Eastern religions, crystals, goddess spirituality and
even angels. Smith of Transitions says, "The angel fad ended a while back, but we still sell hundreds of angel books a year." To illustrate the longevity of certain subjects, Smith points to the fact that Transitions recently partnered with Hazelden publishers to begin a joint imprint which will "help Hazelden break out from the recovery world" by bringing back into print certain titles that have perennial appeal.
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New Age goddess publications
Especially hot areas right now, according to Smith, are reiki, feng shui, yoga ("30 years and still going strong"), magnet therapy and voodoo. Dave Teeters at Pearls of Wisdom sees a new awareness of the "totality of being" among the public, spurring an upsurge in sales of books on subjects like yoga, reiki and hands-on healing. "It all began with Dr. Weil," he tells PW. "The mind is a powerful thing, and the body/mind and soul are one. Weil says we should combine modern medicine with alternative methods. I think this is going to cause a huge change in conventional medicine in the next 20 years," he says. "Things people are skeptical about now will become common practice."
Lanier at Whole Life observes, "Regardless of what is happening with the general public, angels are still very big in this market. Feng shui, although dying down a bit, is still strong, especially sales of Karen Kingston's Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui (Broadway), and books on yoga are still good
sellers, particularly Kundalini yoga." Feng shui and goddess-Wicca titles are doing well for Harrison at Isis, "as are crystals and stones. I expect the area of goddess spirituality to grow," she adds. "But I have been waiting from something really new for four years, and nothing has come along to excite my imagination." Harrison says she has to stay particularly alert for the new and idiosyncratic, because Denver is home to no less than 12 metaphysical bookstores.
|Wicca books make their mark.|
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Apple at The Ph nix and theDragon views the concept of "sacred space" and "altars" as particularly intriguing to her clientele, and she mentions such titles as Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston and Denise Linn, Altars: Bringing Sacred Shrines into Everyday Life by Denise Linn, and Altars Made Easy by Peg Streep as standouts at the cash-wrap. "Feng shui has led into this," she says, "the idea of creating sacred space in your life, space for spirituality."
Top-selling titles in alternative spirituality bookstores are varied, but cover similar ground. Jason Smith says he has sold many copies of "a personal favorite," The Original Reiki Handbook of Dr. Mikao Usui (Lotus Light), by the founder of the reiki technique. "Alternative health is huge," Smith says. He also cites (as did several others interviewed by PW) The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer (Harper San Francisco) as "one of our top bestsellers for a year, and one of the most impressive inspirational titles to come out in a long time." Dave Teeters says The Other Side and Back by Sylvia Browne (Signet), Energy Focused Meditation by Genevieve Lewis Paulson (Llewellyn) and Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life by Drunvalo Melchizedek (Light Technology Publications) are strong in his Ohio store. And the Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life seems to be doing very well with most other alternative spirituality bookstores PW interviewed. In addition to the latter title, Sharon Lanier lists as her bestsellers "all the Rumi books and the card set Path of Love, Healing with the Angels: How the Angels Can Assist You in Every Area of Your Life by Doreen Virtue (Hay House) and all of the Dalai Lama--Buddhism is hot." Lanier is also excited about Oriah Mountain-Dreamer's The Invitation: "What a beautiful book! Everybody loves it!" She also cites Hulda Clark's titles, including The Cure for All Cancer and The Cure for All Diseases (both from New Century Press), as very popular in her store.
Booksellers doff their hats to the Oprah, Montel Williams and Larry King shows for stimulating interest in metaphysical books in general. "What a product of Oprah Gary Zukav's Seat of the Soul is," one points out. "His new title, Soul Stories [Simon & Schuster], would not be doing half as well if it weren't for his Oprah exposure."
As far as over- and under-published categories are concerned, booksellers seem happy with current title offerings. Lanier at Whole Life Books observes, "Twelve, Ten, Seven, whatever, 'Step' books have been done to death. Many don't say a thing and just take up space. I look for books that say something different. Also, there are too many generalized self-help books." But many other booksellers, such as Smith at Transitions, believe that though "tons of titles have been published in the last three years, the quality of the books keeps getting better." As an example of this, he points to Kingston's Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, which came on the heels of hundreds of other feng shui titles, but, because of the value of its information, continues to sell very well. "We've sold over 400 copies."
So who is buying all of these offbeat spiritual books? A few conclusions can evidently be reached from some of the booksellers we spoke with. "Seventy percent of our customer base is female," says Jason Smith. "They are upscale baby boomers looking for answers to the mysteries of life," he says. And according to Dave Teeters, "They definitely run the gamut, but most of them are female."
"They are mostly women," says Sharon Lanier, "who are 35-40, on up to 55-60, and who have already explored a lot of things. They are looking for an alternative way to approach life. A lot of them are well educated and have the money to spend on books."
"Our customers are generally women looking for their alternative path," agrees Karen Harrison. "They're 35 to 60 years old, educated and interested in everything. I would guess their annual income to be $35,000 to $45,000."
Chains and Changes
When alternative spirituality specialty bookstores are compared to the chain superstores, it seems as if there is room enough in the market for both. "This is a steadily growing market segment for us," says Barnes & Noble spokesperson Debra Williams. "The market continues to grow because the baby boomers are getting older and are thinking about the ultimate questions." B&N places alternative spirituality titles in sections labeled Body/Mind/Spirit and New Age. "Our biggest sellers are titles about psychic experiences and life after death. And Wicca books seem popular with teens and women in their mid-20s, probably because of certain TV shows and movies," Williams notes. "People are seeking answers and there seems to be no satiation point," she says. "And the talk shows have been instrumental in bringing these titles to the attention of a wider public.
"These books do well all year, but especially well around holidays such as Mother's Day and Father's Day. They are inspirational. People don't need a holiday for inspiration." Williams says the B&N customer demographics are similar to those of the specialty stores for these titles. "Our average customer storewide, though, is a woman. Women do the bulk of bookbuying. They are big readers."
Williams sees several big titles among new titles in this category: Camino: A Journey of the Spirit by Shirley MacLaine (Pocket), Reaching to Heaven: A Spiritual Journey by James Van Praagh (Signet) and Messages from the Masters: Tapping into the Power of Love by Brian Weiss (Warner).
A snapshot of the status of alternative spirituality books and retailing suggests that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Humankind's quest for keys to the mysteries of life is as old as homo sapiens itself. For those put off by more conventional, institutionalized solutions, the search continues and, it's safe to say, isn't going to fizzle out any time soon.
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