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."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Penelope Corcoran