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.

          Weschke's local notoriety was such that in 1986, perennial fringe candidate and Lyndon LaRouche supporter Andrew Olson vowed that his first official act as governor of Minnesota would be to get rid of Llewellyn, which he described as the "leading purveyor of witchcraft and satanism in this country." His number two priority was a slightly taller order: Shut down Cargill Inc.

          These days Weschke, at 66, talks about his business as any small publisher might--in terms of sales, marketplace trends, marketing. Having long ago traded in his flowing robes for a business suit, he's dismissive of the old days. "I don't think anyone ever thought of me as one of the crazies," he says. "I came from an establishment family who spent four generations here. I went to the St. Paul Academy and lived on Summit Avenue for a time. I never went after publicity; it always came to me. But it didn't do much for Llewellyn to have my face on television, so we hired a publicist to get the attention on our product."

          In addition to publishing books at the rate of about 60 new titles a year, Llewellyn also publishes Fate magazine, which it acquired in 1988. The Reader's Digest-sized compendium of the unknown was recently retooled to fit a more traditional magazine format. An in-house Spanish arm was also launched; it released four titles this year and plans 10 for 1997.

          Llewellyn remains the undisputed king of New Age publishers, despite an increasing number of forays into the market by bigger houses. "Our major competition today," affirms Weschke, "is not another niche publisher. It's HarperCollins. But even though they have more money than we do and publish about 200 titles a year in our field, they don't have the focus. Nor can they relate to the author the same way that a niche publisher can.

          "We've had feelers put out to us over the years," says Weschke of would-be buyers. "Investment bankers show up at our booth at the American Booksellers Association convention each year. But the answer is always the same--I'm not interested."

          Llewellyn remains a family business through and through; it is currently run by Weschke and his wife, Sandra, and son Gabriel is finishing up a masters in publishing science. The fate of Llewellyn by the time he settles into the business depends in large part on cultural fashion. Will New Age passions survive the millennium? "I don't think it's a fad," says Benson. "I think people are always going to be interested in expanding their consciousness."

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