New age, new ideas: Spiritual bookstores are catching on

SAN MATEO — If you walk too fast, you might miss it — the quaint, little shop nestled between Maly’s Beauty Supply and an Army surplus store on busy South B Street.

However, spiritual seekers from all walks of life know to pop into Sacred Paths Bookstore when in need of divine solace, hope, and even intervention.

Susie Ughe and business partner Nancy Connolly created the ethereal haven a little more than a year ago — making it the newest place in San Mateo County to cater to all faiths, mysticism and New Age ideas.

It is one of a few spiritual bookstores dotting the county, as more and more people are starting to question their true purpose in life, without the restrictions of a specific religion.

Ughe, a San Mateo native, was raised Catholic but lost touch with her spirituality in her 20s. She said it was the 9/11 attacks that lit the spark for her, and many other people, to start searching for the meaning of life.

“We’re here for a purpose, to find compassion in all human beings, and from the Catholic perspective, it’s to see God in everybody,” she said.

Cafeteria Religion

aka “Salad-bar Religion.” Denotes the trend where people pick and choose religious beliefs, doctrines and practices – mixing and matching them much as they would select food in a cafeteria. A prime example of a cafeteria religion is the “church-free spirituality” promoted by Oprah Winfrey.

A number of publishers refer to the phenomenon as “private spirituality.” It is also described as “spirituality without religion.”

That said, this eclectic approach is not just popular among non-Christians, but also among people who consider themselves to be Christians. More often than not, the latter do not know how to discern orthodoxy from heresy.

Many, but by no means all, who take this approach are also religious pluralists.

Ughe said the New Age movement has been slow in the Bay Area, a place where people typically have more of a progressive view on political and social issues. But Ughe, 37, believes it is the next logical place to be forward-thinking, as is Los Angeles, where every other block seems to have a New Age store. For now, it’s a grassroots movement on the Peninsula, she said, going as far back as the 1960s, when Mountain View’s East West, the area’s oldest spiritual bookshop, opened in Menlo Park. Angel Light Books and Gifts in Redwood City and Full Circle in Belmont opened later.

“The community is definitely here,” said Corinne Marcus, an astrologer. The Hillsborough resident adds that if there weren’t any spiritual bookstores, people would feel isolated.

“These bookstores give a sense of community, a sense of belonging and the ability to exchange with others looking for something bigger than themselves,” Marcus said. “They want to establish their spiritual practice without following a religious dogma.”

New Age teachings gained popularity in the 1970s, but mellowed under criticism from established religions in the 1980s. Ughe said the big push toward spirituality returned over the last 10 years, with more people interested in also learning about the mystical aspects of Christianity, Gnostic traditions, Taoism, Buddhism, as well as Wicca and other neo-pagan traditions.

According to a recent Baylor University Religion Survey, 44 percent of Americans spent money in the past month on religious and spiritual items such as devotional books, sacred texts, jewelry and greeting cards. Of these, 16 percent of them claim no religious affiliation.

“The world’s more chaotic now,” said Valencia Chan, owner of Angel Light Books and Gifts. “People are seeking a sanctuary within themselves so they can find peace and harmony.”

Ughe said her store has gotten nothing but good feedback from people who are happy the shop exists.

“It’s a safe place for them to search,” she said. “They don’t have to change their religion, they don’t have to be different. It doesn’t have to stop them from going to church.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday December 28, 2006.
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