The Alchemist's Revenge

St. Paul's Llewellyn Publications was New Age before New Age was cool. Now it's enormously lucrative, too.

          Say what you will about New Age, but it's hard to think of it as a subculture anymore. TV shows about psychics (The Early Edition, Paranormal Borders), UFOs and extraterrestrials (The X-Files, Dark Skies, Sightings, Third Rock from the Sun), and witches (Sabrina: The Teenage Witch) abound on commercial networks. Even so-called highbrow cable outlets such as Discovery, The Learning Channel, and the Arts & Entertainment Network are weighing in with paranormal programming.

          It's estimated that there are more than 10,000 psychic hot line currently catering to soothseekers. Sales are at about $1 billion a year and growing. And following the box office success of Independence Day and Phenomenon this summer, Hollywood is reaching back into its vaults and dusting off every script with a supernatural theme. Even the Star Tribune ran a page-one Metro story earlier this year about the ghost-cleansing of a south Minneapolis home.

          All of this hoopla comes as good news to St. Paul's Llewellyn Publications, which--unlike more recent interlopers--has focused on what might be called New Age literature for the past 95 years. Traditionally a big fish in the small pond of "occult" publishing, Llewellyn still has its offices in the old Coca-Cola warehouse at the end of the Wabasha Street bridge. But it may have to move before long; the recent popular surge of New Age and occult subjects has gone a long way toward putting Llewellyn in a new league.

          Since the late 1980s, when the publishing house was plodding along with yearly sales of about $2.5 million, Llewellyn's fortunes have improved dramatically, with revenues growing at a brisk 20 percent a year. By the time 1996 is over, officials expect a total of $12 million in sales.

          This growth spurt has not gone unnoticed within publishing circles. In 1995, Publishers Weekly released its survey of the fastest-growing small publishers in the country. Llewellyn ranked number 15 on a list of 26 "small publisher standouts," with 51 percent growth in sales from 1992-94.

          Happiest of all is owner Carl Weschke, who purchased the company 36 years ago for $40,000 from the estate of the late George Llewellyn, a noted astrologer who founded the mail-order company in 1901. When Weschke bought it, the company's sustenance (total sales in 1960: $60,000) came from three publications, the annually published Moon Sign Book and Astrology Calendar, and the perennial A to Z Horoscope Maker.

          Publishing types generally regarded Weschke's acquisition as a pretty lame piece of business. Since astrology was dead, the experts reasoned, Llewellyn would necessarily follow in a matter of time. "When I first started and said that we published astrology books," Weschke remembers, "most people presumed I was saying 'astronomy.' When I went to book buyers, those who specialized in the occult said that the good old days of the 1920s were gone. Business experts knew I'd lose my shirt."

          But they did not reckon on the 1960s. When the Age of Aquarius struck, Weschke and his company were there to reap the benefits. Weschke credits the "San Francisco milieu" of the late 1960s with generating fresh interest in the occult. "There was a sudden spurt of interest in the area of astrology. The next thing was interest in witchcraft, or Wicca. People wanted different kinds of spiritual meaning. Wicca, with its nature-oriented experience, could meet that concept. Tarot was the next major interest that grew. In 1963 there were five different Tarot card decks available. Today there are more a thousand, and we're publishing two or three new decks each year."

          Through the years, Llewellyn has consistently expanded its titles to include an entire panoply of so-called "New Age sciences." Subjects covered by the company's more than 400 books in print include crystals, UFOs, natural healing, ghosts, psychic phenomena, vampires, herbs, self-empowerment, spirit guides, past life studies, folklore, and Magick (Weschke has long been a believer in Wicca, the cultural tradition underlying witchcraft). One of the company's latest titles, Transforming Scrooge, readdresses the Charles Dickens tale from a psychological perspective--seeking to heal the inner scoundrel, as it were.

          Llewellyn books are now stocked by mainstream booksellers such as Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton. Its authors make appearances on Ricki Lake, CNBC, Fox TV News, and WCCO radio. Foreign licensees span the globe, from China and Argentina to Norway and Bulgaria. "In the past six months," says Llewellyn publicist Anthony J.W. Benson, "we've seen a huge increase in people calling for information and booking our authors. Our subject matter isn't fringe anymore. The tables have slowly turned."

          During his early years at the helm, Weschke sometimes attracted more attention than the books he published. In 1964, he moved himself and his still-struggling business into a mansion on Summit Avenue. Weschke claimed he wasn't alone there--there were a couple of ghosts, too. After a newspaper article about his uninvited guests in 1969, the house became a draw for tourists and still more journalists.

          In 1970, Weschke opened the Gnostica Bookstore, which augmented its stock of books, herbs, incense, and psychic paraphernalia with in-house fortune tellers. They packed the place. (And Weschke learned a valuable lesson: For years now, Llewellyn has offered psychic entertainment at its booth during the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association.) That same year Weschke started the annual Gnostic Aquarian Festival of Astrology, Witchcraft, and the Esoteric Sciences, which ran for five years. Along the way, he married Sandra Heggum in a full-moon Wiccan wedding ceremony in 1972, which put Weschke in local papers once again, this time for holding the first public witch wedding in recent memory.

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