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MIRACLE MILES

THE AUTOM COMPANY occupies a simple storefront with large windows. Unassuming. Like the old-fashioned office supply store that adjoins it on North Seventh Street, it is a repository of equipment. In this case, religious equipment. "Can I help you find something?" A young woman dressed casually in slacks and shirt...
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THE AUTOM COMPANY occupies a simple storefront with large windows. Unassuming. Like the old-fashioned office supply store that adjoins it on North Seventh Street, it is a repository of equipment. In this case, religious equipment.

"Can I help you find something?"
A young woman dressed casually in slacks and shirt approaches me with a store clerk's natural curiosity.

The thing is, I am not here to buy a gift for my devout Aunt Regina. I am here to look, to snoop around, to jog some memories of my Catholic girlhood. I am more than a little nervous. It has been 21 years since my last confession. How do I let this guardian of goods know I'm okay? Dredging my memory, a magic password.

"Oh, I'm, uh, looking for scapulars," I say, with studied nonchalance. "Where would I find them?"

The young woman smiles. I have passed the test. I have indicated awareness of an antiquated religious sacramental that, if worn when the end comes, guarantees that the Blessed Virgin Mary will come down and rescue me from purgatory and take me with her to heaven on the first Saturday after my departure from this plane of existence. At least according to myth, anyway.

The clerk turns to the middle-aged man behind the front counter. "John," she calls. "Scapulars?"

John stops studying the papers in front of him. "Not in yet." He addresses his response to me. "We have them specially made for us and they're on order. We haven't had any for three months. I expect them any day. Check back with us."

I thank him. "I guess I'll just look around," I tell the woman. She nods and returns to checking inventory. The aisles of Autom--full as they are of rosaries, creches and Gregorian-chant cassettes; First Communion veils, bridal books and holy cards; medals, censers and crucifixes--are mine to roam freely. CALL IT A sacred attraction or just plain perverse voyeurism, but religious supply stores fascinate me. Here one can observe the articles of religion disencumbered, demystified and nakedly for sale.

Interestingly, Seventh Street is where several such divine emporiums are located. Autom, LDS Book & Supply and Israel Connection--book and religious supply stores for the Catholic, Mormon and Jewish communities, respectively--are all strewn along this single-digit street in Phoenix.

Factor into this Seventh Street equation two more stores (Gifts Anon and Joan Eichenauer Health Foods) with a strong self-help/healing orientation; two purveyors of positive thinking (Jenny Craig Weight-Loss Centres and Dale Carnegie Systems); and some 15 churches, 13 of them in use as places of worship.

Bound this thoroughfare at its south end with the Mystery Castle, a spooky tribute to one's man vision and ingenuity where Seventh Street dead-ends at South Mountain. Bound it at the other with the Shangri La Nudist Resort, a holiday camp in New River devoted to less-than-mainstream philosophical ideas.

Scatter businesses along its length, like the Mecca Cocktail Lounge and the Mercado, that certifiable shrine to the economic greed of the Eighties.

What you end up with is one main drag with one heavy karma. A veritable street of spiritual destiny. Seventh heaven. THE AUTOM COMPANY was founded in the late Forties by Ignatius DiGiovanni. His sons, Tom and Paul, now own and operate the store. Autom combines the names of two saints, Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas, and is pronounced like the season.

"My father was involved in the church and he had a real leaning that way," Tom DiGiovanni relates. "He was a religious type of guy. He started off to serve the community and then people wanted to buy things and it evolved into a business."

Autom now supplies Valley churches with everything from stained glass and carpeting to custom-built altars. "Whatever the customer wants, we can get it for them," DiGiovanni says. "Special carved things from Italy. Statues. Special mosaic. Anything."

In contrast to its contract work, the retail side of Autom's business caters to the simpler needs of the community. According to Tom DiGiovanni, the store's regular customers are mostly priests, nuns and religious-education instructors.

"We have clergy coming in looking for shirts or prayer books or a ritual book to use for a ceremony because theirs got lost or stolen or the pages are torn," DiGiovanni says. "There's a certain amount of goods that is used up in a year's time."

One whole aisle is devoted to clothing. In addition to robes and vestments worn during Mass, Autom sells a significant quantity of street clothing--lined London Fog raincoats, Bing Crosby-style "golf" cardigans and clerical shirts in various styles, colors and sleeve lengths. Black predominates. It goes with everything.

Nonchurch-related retail customers are less common. "Unless there's a First Communion or a wedding or something like that in the family," DiGiovanni says, "or they're really a devout Catholic who likes to come in and read some books."

When they do come in, DiGiovanni says "black-book traditional stuff" is what these customers usually want. He explains: "`Black book' refers to the Fifties and Sixties when the Catholic Church used the black missal, so we call it `black-book merchandise.' Rosaries, medals, chains, prayer books. Very traditional stuff."

The store also does a booming business in catechism manuals, liturgical references and other books appealing to Catholics. Peruse the shelves at Autom and you'll discover Lives of the Saints, novels by Andrew M. Greeley and biographies of Mother Teresa, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Thomas Merton. Books with names like Is Talking to God a Long-Distance Call? and Prayers for Urgent Occasions. For history buffs, there is even a thick volume aptly titled A Concise History of the Catholic Church.

Seventh Street has been home to Autom for the past 30 years. Ask why the current location was selected and the answer makes perfect, logical sense. "There are only so many major thoroughfares," DiGiovanni says. "Seventh Street was closest to Central and reasonable in price."

"IT'S AROUND OUR MARKET," says Terry Epcar, who, together with his wife Geri, owns Israel Connection. Epcar is explaining how the store's 5539 North Seventh Street location was selected. "The two orthodox synagogues are close by," he continues. "And the kosher bakery [Karsh's] is next door." Israel Connection had its genesis as three tiny boutiques nestled inside the Jewish Community Centers in Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale. Six years ago, the Epcars consolidated their business into one store in the busy ABCO shopping center at Missouri and Seventh Street. Earlier this month, the enterprise expanded yet again and moved into a larger space in the same plaza.

The new store, decorated simply in white and blue, is beautiful. Combining some of the snazziest display elements of book, music, jewelry and gift stores, it is an elegant place to shop for a surprisingly broad range of goods. Here you'll find CDs and tapes of Israeli folk and contemporary music, traditional ritual items like Menorahs, yarmulkes and mezuzahs, Hanukkah wrapping paper, rhinestone dreidels and imported chocolates. Gift items for every religious holiday and Jewish rite of passage.

Israel Connection's book selection is impressive and extensive. "We carry only Judaica," says Terry Epcar. "Bibles, Talmuds, related Jewish writers, Jewish philosophy, biblical sources, Israel books, American Jewry, world Jewry, archaeological books. In English and in Hebrew." The store stocks representative Jewish literary works (Malamud and I.B. Singer, but not Roth) and language tapes, and devotes a separate book display entirely to international, Jewish and kosher cookbooks.

I feel comfortable in Israel Connection. The stylishly dressed women who work in the store make me feel welcome. On one occasion, ethnic folk music plays in the background. During another visit, the store's radio is tuned to National Public Radio's eclectically offbeat Fresh Air program. Host Terry Gross is interviewing musician John Prine. I listen and browse in peace. I end up purchasing a split-track, sing-along cassette of Hanukkah songs for a 3-year-old friend who lives in Connecticut.

OF ALL THE RELIGIOUS supply stores I survey, LDS Book & Supply takes the most courage to enter. Maybe that's because the parking lot and entrance are located at the rear of the building, as at an adult bookstore. Or maybe it's because I am least familiar with the religion and culture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--the Mormons.

On the day I visit, I select my wardrobe with care. My ruse works. The nice, polyester-clad ladies who work in this mostly windowless store do not raise an eyebrow when I enter. They don't follow me around, and never ask if they can help me find what I'm looking for. They simply allow me to wander the store at will, which I do for nearly an hour, looking at the journals and genealogical charts, the photograph albums, the missionary supplies and the apparently quite popular quilted and vinyl Scripture totes. Inspirational, contemporary easy listening music spills from a boom box. The display next to it tells me a cassette called The Light Within is "now playing."

Books and music are big sellers at LDS Book & Supply. Especially "good, family-oriented books," store manager Florenia Robinson says. "I'm a real avid reader," she declares, "so I'm always in bookstores. I read Scarlett the first day it came out. You pay $23 for it and it's on this awful paper. We have books that have just as many pages in them that are of real high-quality slick paper, that will sell for five to eight dollars less." No lie. Prices for hardbacks here are amazingly low. Robinson says that's because the publishers--Salt Lake City presses like Bookcraft, Deseret, BYU and Hawkes--know their market. "They know who they're going to sell to," she conjectures, "so they don't have as many remainders. They're not wasting money."

Indeed, the books here are written and published for a specialized audience. Shelves are filled with biographies of 20th century Mormon leaders. Men with gray hair and glasses, whose names mean little to anyone outside the church, like LeGrand Richards and Harold B. Lee. Other books address marriage (Yours Can Be a Happy Marriage), motherhood (From Here to Maternity) and exercise (Forever Fit: Aerobic Exercise for LDS Women). Even more interesting to the outsider are the sections devoted to books on food storage, healthful cooking and cleaning. Publications with titles like Do I Dust or Vacuum First?, Spring Cleaning and the "Clean Your House Calendar." Though some titles have the pop-psychology catchiness of mainstream self-help books, a quick page flip indicates that most authors revert to Scripture quotations to motivate readers, not self-analysis. When I check out of the store, I learn that all its profits are plowed back into the 13 Phoenix LDS stakes for missionary work. I learn this the hard way.

"Stake?" the cashier inquires as she hands me my receipt.
"Excuse me?"
She repeats her question in a kind tone. "What stake are you from?" In my head, I am envisioning the word "steak." I have no idea what she is talking about. "None," I finally answer, then ask her what a stake is. I find out a stake is similar to a Catholic diocese.

Later, Florenia Robinson explains that LDS Book & Supply was started in 1948 by the original Phoenix stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1973, it moved to its present location on Seventh Street, where it adjoins land owned by the church, and has remained there ever since. My purchase at LDS Book & Supply? An inspirational tape called The Joy of Depression by a man named William Wait.

I couldn't resist. GIFTS ANON IS NOT a religious supply store. "We're recovery," says manager Joni Dodson. Nevertheless, the 12 Steps that form the philosophical foundation of most addiction recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and its various Anonymous offspring compose a spiritual journey for the person who works at them. Books and merchandise here reflect that search for peace and serenity as well as a willingness to conquer personal problems by courageously examining one's past.

If you have an acquaintance who continually urges you to read some self-help book that sheds light on a particular "issue," this is the place to find it. Gifts Anon is tops in the latest literature of addiction, co-dependency and "inner child" theories. The store stocks works by all the best-selling heal-thyself authors, including M. Scott Peck, Charles L. Whitfield, Melodie Beattie, John Bradshaw and Louise L. Hay. Here you'll also find provocative titles like Getting the Love You Want, Father Loss, Facing Anger, Of Course You're Anxious, Healing Hidden Memories and The Indispensable Woman. For those of you on last year's don't-worry-be-happy drug, there's even a book called Everything You Need to Know About Prozac.

Gifts Anon was started in 1977 by three women, all actively in recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. They chose to open their store in the small Seventh Street shopping plaza where the store is still located, because, according to Dodson, it was central to "what was going on at the time" in Phoenix.

"The store started out very tiny," she says. "It was a probably a sixth as big as it is now. It was just a little corner, eight feet by six feet, something really dinky, and it's just grown over the years. Two years ago, we moved into this larger store."

Gifts Anon continues to hire people in recovery to work on its staff. When these women ask you how you are, they mean it. You can tell. It's something in the voice, the eyes, the depth of feeling behind a question normally devoid of meaning. You get the idea that they care about your answer. Whether you're having a good or bad day, they've been there.

Soothing new-age music emanates from the sound system in the spacious store. Customers are encouraged to browse freely, but if you need help finding a particular book or item, the staff is there to help. In addition to books, Gifts Anon sells cards, pamphlets, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, tee shirts, teddy bears, jewelry, posters, tapes and other merchandise. All of it, in some way or another, reminds its owner of the concept of the "higher power" espoused in 12-Step programs.

One of the most interesting items is a board game called "Codependency: The Game." Undoubtedly a lot more fun than Codependency: The Life, this $29.95 game requires players to overcome obstacles like "skeletons in the closet," "denial" and the dreaded "family week" as they circle the board, revealing their feelings and earning recovery chips. The first person to collect five years' worth of recovery chips wins the game.

As I flip through the posters of cuddly kittens and puppies teamed with inspirational messages, I overhear a young man talking to the woman ringing up his purchase at the register. "I'm celebrating two years tonight," he volunteers proudly.

"Good for you," she says.
And she means it.

WHY HAVE THESE businesses--whose stock in trade is religious items and books on spirituality in all its various forms--chosen to situate their activities on Seventh Street? Who better to shed some light on the subject than a numerologist? I give Ellin Dodge, "America's Foremost Numerologist" and Phoenix resident, a call.

"Seven is the number of spirituality and intellect," Dodge tells me. "The reason that metaphysical and intellectual people are attracted to Seventh Street is because numbers attract their like. In other words, it's like music, and people sense from the number that they are welcome if they have an analytical, mystical, meticulous, introspective, aristocratic, logical, poised, investigative nature." Dodge pauses for breath. "Have I given you enough words?" she jokes.

Dodge explains, in brief, the theory behind numerology. "The basic premise is: Numbers are like music or vibrations. They send out a subliminal message so that people who are mystical, metaphysical, intellectual, spiritual, live in houses that have a number seven address. They'll be drawn to a house that has a number seven because they are more comfortable with that. Seventh Street will attract people because overall the whole street will attract people who belong there."

What then about Seventh Avenue? Would it not attract spiritual businesses in equal numbers?

Needless to say, Dodge has a numerological answer for this tricky question. "[The word] `street' has an influence, too," she says. "It's a combo. You take seven and you read it, and you take street and you read it, and you put the two together and that's how you analyze."

"Streets are more commercial than the avenues," Dodge advises. "First of all, the reason you've got a track record on the street is because things stay there longer, because they can pay their rent, because they can earn a living there. The avenues are more transitory, believe it or not. Street is a six. Six is a number of long-term commitment. Avenue is a five. A five is a number of changes, constant changes."

Hmmmm, that would explain why Autom, LDS Book & Supply, Gifts Anon and Israel Connection have all, to a store, enjoyed commercial success and expanded their business while on Seventh Street. But perhaps Dodge, as a Phoenix resident, knows too much to give an objective assessment.

To cross-check for bias in this totally unscientific study, I call Abacus Numerology in Seattle, Washington. Joelle Escalera-Lentz, a recently transplanted Californian, knows nothing of our city, streets or businesses. I ask her about the number seven.

Escalera-Lentz confirms that seven is a "very special" number, a "psychic" number. As for businesses of a spiritual nature being drawn unknowingly to Seventh Street, she says, "I've seen it happen."

"They're attracted there and they don't know why they're attracted, but they are," Escalera-Lentz says. "And there's lots of proofs about this, by the way." She offers an example. "For instance, the number 800. Who does it pertain to? It's a business number, is it not? Eight is a big business number. The eight is the administrator, the coordinator, the one who brings business and success."

"Coincidence" holds no water for Escalera-Lentz. She doesn't believe it exists. "There isn't any such thing as coincidence, except two things agreeing to occur at the same time," she maintains. "It's just a phrase that people, unfortunately, have gotten to believe in. And it's incorrect."

THEN THERE IS the Seventh Street vortex theory. Reverend Rose Figiuola, a psychic and numerologist who has been giving readings in the Valley for 40 years, has yet another explanation for the proliferation of spiritual enterprises on Seventh Street. She tells me of a "vortex of spiritual and psychic power" that extends "from back down to the railroad track south and then north way up to Shea Boulevard."

"That's a long way," admits Reverend Rose. "But there's a lot of psychic and spiritual vitality and I think [the vortex] is the reason."

Attempting to document or confirm the existence of a vortex on Seventh Street is no easy matter. John Rodgers, manager of Alpha Book Center and editor of Omega Magazine, who keeps track of such phenomena, denies any awareness of a midtown vortex. "It's all news to me," he says.

Yet Alice Bowers, director of the metaphysically inclined University of Life, agrees with Reverend Rose. "I've had it in a vision," she says of the Seventh Street vortex.

"Around that area people have had accidents for no reason at all," Bowers opines. "I think it's right by Seventh Street, just north of Osborn where the accidents have happened. It's like an energy force field there that creates the energy. People see things that are not there in the third dimension, but in the fourth."

Ask a question, get an answer.
Except when you're dealing with the City of Phoenix Street Transportation Department, which is where I call for information on accidents at the intersection of Osborn and Seventh Street. Dot Shedlock, senior engineering technician, quickly lets me know that what I am asking would take a major, long-term, exhaustive, comparative study to determine.

"You could count how many accidents there are," Shedlock suggests. "But what does that mean? You'd have to know what's at that intersection and what the traffic volume is. Then also Seventh Street has the reverse lane, so you'd have to know when these accidents are occurring because if you're counting during the reverse-lane time, that's one thing; if you're looking at it during the other periods of time, that's something else."

Something else, indeed.

TO GET SOME perspective on the whole Seventh Street matter, I take an afternoon off for a leisurely drive down South Seventh Street to the Mystery Castle. Here, where this puzzling street terminates in the foothills of South Mountain Park, I hope to see things differently.

Mary Lou Gulley gives me a standard tour of the strange and wondrous "castle" her father, Boyce Luther Gulley, built from native stone and materials after he abandoned the rains of Seattle for a life in the desert 50 years ago. Not surprisingly--to me, at this point, anyway--the castle is rife with signs of Gulley's spiritual awareness. In addition to shrines scattered about and good-luck symbols embedded in patios, Boyce Gulley even saw fit to build himself a formal chapel in one room of the castle. I ask Mary Lou Gulley if it's spooky to live alone in such a desolate location. "No," she says. "I've lived here all my life."

As I look north toward Phoenix through a stone "picture frame" designed by Mary Lou's father, the words of the Seattle numerologist come back to me. "You're a seven," Joelle Escalera-Lentz announced with glee, after tallying up my birth date. She and Ellin Dodge are both sevens, too.

I recall how I asked her, then, if she thought it was coincidence that I had chosen to write this odd story of religious supply stores, street numbers, spirituality and cosmic attraction.

"No," she replied. "None at all."

It's one main drag with one heavy karma. A veritable street of spiritual destiny. Seventh heaven. Clerical shirts come in various styles, colors and sleeve lengths. Black predominates. It goes with everything.

"The two orthodox synagogues are close by," he says. "And Karsh's is next door." The store's radio is tuned to National Public Radio's eclectically offbeat Fresh Air program.

They allow me to wander the store at will, looking at the missionary supplies and the apparently quite popular quilted and vinyl Scripture totes.

Shelves are filled with biographies of 20th century Mormon leaders. Men with gray hair and glasses.

One of the most interesting items is a board game called "Codependency: The Game." It's undoubtedly a lot more fun than Codependency: The Life.

As for businesses of a spiritual nature being drawn unknowingly to Seventh Street, she says, "I've seen it happen."

"I've had it in a vision," she says of the Seventh Street vortex.

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