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COVER STORY : A New Age of Aquarius : Booming Interest in Astrology and Other Psychic Arts May Be Related to a Need for Comfort and Security in Uncertain Times

August 28, 1994|SCOTT SHIBUYA BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Chris Georgas returned to Los Angeles recently after seven years in Minneapolis, she found herself grateful for a number of things: the weather, the presence of her immediate family and, perhaps as important, the abundance of stores and services specializing in the psychic arts--astrology, palmistry and Tarot card reading.

"It reminded me of Coney Island, with all the advertisements for shops along Ventura Boulevard and on Melrose," said Georgas, a Beverly Hills cosmetologist who has used the counsel of psychics for more than 30 years. "I was pretty shocked that it had opened up to that point. I just couldn't believe . . . the public display of it."

Long a haven for the paranormal, the City of Angels has now become a psychic Mecca of sorts. Following a 1985 state Supreme Court decision that overturned local bans on fortunetelling and psychic readings, shops offering metaphysical services, books and goods have proliferated--with the Westside one of the Los Angeles area's busiest markets. No longer relegated to dingy private bungalows or semi-secret rooms above businesses, psychics today are reading palms, advising the anxious and surfing the astral plane in mini-malls, Wilshire Boulevard storefronts and--most lucratively--on private 900 telephone lines.

Psychics, of course, aren't for everybody; they have more than their share of critics. However, the growing number of soothsayers in recent years reflects a steadily growing demand.

"The public has become more aware of the metaphysical in the last five or six years," said Robert Leysen, who nine years ago founded the Psychic Eye Bookstore, which now has 10 locations throughout California and Nevada, including one on Main Street in Venice. "It has come out of the closet."

Psychic Spencer Grendahl, who teaches a course in palm reading at the Learning Annex in West Los Angeles, agreed: "The market has been rather flooded."

Psychics and others in the field say there are several reasons for the trend. One has to do with the general tenor of the times--that is, Southern California's ongoing recession and the anxiety it provokes.

"When the economy gets worse, people get more interested," said Ed Helin, a psychic and astrology instructor at the Carroll Righter Foundation in Hollywood. "When things get bad, we always see an upturn because people like to know what's going to happen."

In Helin's case, the effects of such financial anxiety are readily discernible--more than half of his work is for businesses that hire him to help in personnel matters, or in decisions concerning expansion or investments. Such businesses are image-conscious, Helin adds quickly, and put a premium on keeping their use of psychics a secret.

Another factor is the greater openness of people to consider so-called alternative philosophies, coupled with the growing distrust many have of science and technology. That willingness to ponder different, non-traditional realms of thought, say psychics, has led to a more tolerant cultural milieu.

"People weren't eagerly talking about their visits to astrologers in the 1950s, but they were still going to them," said Martin Bravin, a clinical psychologist and director of the Psychic Science Institute in Encino. "Before, psychics used to be pulled in by the police. In 1994, they've got storefronts."

Echoed Century City attorney Barry A. Fisher, who represented the fortunetelling plaintiffs in the 1985 state Supreme Court case: "There's much less of a stigma today than before."

That has made soothsaying less daunting for prospective customers--and more convenient for regular seekers of psychic advice. For Georgas, who used to have to drive to San Bernardino to seek spiritual counsel, psychics have always been worth the trouble to find. One, in fact, predicted her move out-of-state to a northern clime, which occurred when she later married and moved to Minnesota. Now, she consults a reader about once a month--right in Los Angeles. "I just need someone to talk to, who knows more than I do," she said.

Ironically, the tolerance now accorded palm readers and other psychics has in some ways made business tougher--the result of greater competition. Though well-known psychics and places such as the Psychic Eye continue to do well (Leysen averages 55 readings a day in his Sherman Oaks store and around 35 a day in Venice), the hot area of growth is one that didn't exist a few years ago: 900 lines on which customers can phone in for readings by staff psychics. At $4 a minute or more, such services can be more expensive than private psychics, who usually charge around $100 for an hour-length astrological consultation and as little as $5 for a quick palm reading.

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