SAN DIEGO — When Alpha Herndon was told she had breast cancer in July, the diagnosis launched her on a spiritual search that she believes contributed to her recovery.
Herndon's efforts to find meaning in the mastectomy she underwent in November began with psychological counseling offered as part of her treatment.
Her counselor gave her a long list of books that might help her create a positive attitude to fight the disease. Some of the books were as well known as Norman Cousins' "Anatomy of an Illness." Others were more obscure, such as "Course of Miracles," a series of meditations that a New York psychologist, now deceased, claimed were dictated to her by an unseen voice 20 years ago.
Herndon, 45, whose illness caused her to reshape her life and trade a public relations career for one in physical therapy, pauses a moment, afraid that her words will shock.
"I am actually thankful for my cancer. It brought me the opportunity to experience a feeling of inner peace I'd never known before," she said. "I feel as though my spiritual awareness will take me through whatever I have to face, even if the cancer returned."
Herndon, who is divorced and the mother of a teen-age son, continues her spiritual journey not through a church or religious organization but in the stacks of a small bookstore in a Point Loma shopping center, where she had found the books that helped her deal with the cancer.
Midway Books is one of several bookstores in the San Diego area that specialize in the esoteric. They are often called metaphysical or New Age bookstores, and there are at least seven of them scattered from Encinitas to National City, three of which have opened in the last five years.
They carry everything from holistic healing methods to accounts of supernatural phenomena. There are books on self-development and psychology, books on astrology and meditation, and books that contain the writings of religious thinkers from St. Augustine to Eastern gurus.
Ten years ago these stores mostly catered to people considered on the fringes of society. Now their clientele has broadened to include yuppies and housewives, physicians and clerics, and people like Herndon who face a crisis in their lives and look for ways to ease their fears and pain.
The bookstores' owners believe that their steadily enlarging businesses indicate a growing spiritual hunger among people confused by modern complexities and unsatisfied by material security.
"In the past, traditional religions nourished people's need for transcendent meaning, that sense that there's more to life than doing the laundry," said Jim Meadows, owner of Earth Song bookstore in Encinitas, which carries books representing all spiritual traditions. "But the influence of religion waned with the progress of science and technology and now people seem to be searching to satisfy that spiritual dimension in ways that are meaningful to them."
"This is California, I realize, but this interest is happening in (Texas), too," said Larry Keyes, a clerk at Midway Books. "This material isn't saying anything new, it's just not using 'thee' and 'thou' and preaching hell and damnation.
"Basically, it's saying that you get what you plant, you alone are responsible for creating the quality of your own life, and a lot of these books try to help you do that."
He said business doubled when the store converted from a general bookstore nearly two years ago. Midway, like most of the stores, sponsors classes, lectures and forums on metaphysical subjects.
Controversial Bookstore, whose name dates from 20 years ago when it specialized in political literature, is San Diego's oldest metaphysical bookstore, located in a University Avenue storefront on a busy commercial block of North Park. Like most New Age bookstores, it has a sense of order and peace conveyed by neatly stacked shelves, people reading quietly and soft music playing in the background.
"You can hardly walk through the store on Saturdays, there are so many people here," one clerk said.
Among the customers on a recent weekday were an accountant on his lunch break studying ways to increase the brain's capacity to store information, a family therapist reading about meditative yoga, a schoolteacher looking for a book on achieving world peace and a Pacific Bell executive in button-down shirt and tie buying literature on self-motivation to use in the company's training programs.
"I stayed in the car and made my sister go in when I first came here. I was afraid everyone would be wearing spiked hairdos or something," said John Gilley, 41, who runs Pacific Bell's in-house leadership development program, in which workers make management decisions collectively. "I started coming here to find methods of self-development as it relates to better management. That led me to other books . . . and now it has become an extraordinary experience for me to discover the limitlessness and potential of the human consciousness."