Ashes & lessons

Update: Mayflower Bookstore re-opened in May of 2006. Check out their website to learn more.

“When the bookstore was burning, my first thought was how sad it was for the community that lost this library,” storeowner Robert Thibodeau mused the other day. “A library where you didn’t have to buy a thing; you could just go there to hang out and read books you couldn’t find anywhere else and research any spiritual subject.”

It was a year and a half ago that Mayflower Bookstore in Berkley burned. Thibodeau had opened it 30 years earlier in Ferndale before moving it farther north; he became a well-known “psychic astrologer” and lecturer while his store became a local landmark for those inclined to astrology, theosophy and such. In fact, the store garnered a nationwide reputation, welcoming everyone from poets Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly to supermodel Claudia Schiffer and members of Pearl Jam who “would only buy their incense at the store” when passing through town. The fire destroyed thousands of books and much of the interior and exterior facade.

Sitting in his living room, overlooking his organic vegetable and flower garden, Thibodeau at his home in Franklin strikes just the pose you might expect from a spiritual omnivore. A life-size statue of the Buddha catches the eye; a considerable collection of crystals stretches across a lamp table. Guitar and bongos rest against endless rows of books while a faint hint of incense wafts through the sun-drenched space. Thibodeau admits he was deeply saddened by the fire but has kept his spirits up.

“It’s not like that person burned down one of a thousand McDonalds or Kmarts. He took down a very unique place. On the other hand, I’m already saved. I have a deeper connection to everything because I’ve been able to grow and reflect and be silent.”

He still doesn’t know who torched the store or why anyone would. (The Berkley Police arson investigation remains open.) But as the eldest of 12 children who has been working since he was a kid with three paper routes, he is clear about the lesson involved: “I’m learning that I’m a workaholic, and this forced me to sit still. It’s like I’ve been on a spiritual retreat for a year and a half and that is something I would have never done. People say I now listen better and that I’ve slowed down a bit. Robert and the bookstore used to be inseparable. Now I think I have my own identity apart from the store. It was a terrible thing that happened and I feel really sorry for the person that did it. But it’s my nature to make something good out of bad. So I used this time to get better at guitar, become more loving and compassionate … more laid-back and not so proud and robust.”

Despite his claims of a calmer disposition, Thibodeau is extraordinarily animated and given to run-on sentences. A cross between Dennis Hopper quirkiness and boyish giddiness, Thibodeau seems both earnest and eccentric — and it’s understandable why he might strike some as a sort of name-dropping guru. His speech is sprinkled with “yeah, man” and esoteric references, and his tousled hair and hippie sensibility are as obvious as his passion for his work. “I’m not an intellectual. I’m a romancer. I love to romance knowledge. I want to be one with yoga, I want to converse with the soul of Steiner and Blavatsky.

“That’s how I came to meet guys like David Spangler, Robert Thurman and all these great Native Americans and Tibetan lamas and Marianne Williamson. I meet all these people that share the spiritual road, trying to make the world a better place and create peace within our minds and souls.”

Thibodeau’s own spiritual road, he says, began after a savage mugging, back when he was a briefcase-toting law student at Wayne State University: “I came out of my body and saw myself on the ground and there was a beautiful giant angel standing next to me. That experience sent me into a massive inquiry of how someone could be out of body and still be here.”

Thibodeau didn’t predict the store fire, but says he sensed doom. “Nine-eleven had just happened and I saw that I had all these bad aspects in my [astrological] chart. I thought it related to the people around me who were having problems. I was going around saying, ‘Something bad is gonna happen, man.’ And I thought it might be my house. So I put a new roof on my house, and I actually fixed up the store right before it went down. I was a little paranoid thinking something bad was gonna happen and, well, it did.”

With plans to reopen in May or June, Thibodeau says the store will be better than before with a lending library for his 100 best books as well as more space for sitting, relaxing and drinking tea.

Until then, he is asking folks who have bought books from him to donate one or two.

“My hope now is to have only the best books available,” he says. “Before I wanted to have every book on every subject, but now I’m going to have only the best in each subject. Plus, I’ll be there to help educate people. I want the Mayflower to be a sort of spiritual college bookstore for beginners and teachers alike.”


Robert Thibodeau lectures Mondays at 7 p.m. through May 5 at the Theosophical Society of Detroit, 27745 Woodward, Berkley. Call 248-545-1961 or visit Books can be mailed to the store at 2645 W. 12 Mile Road, Berkley or call 248-547-8227.

Mar Yvette is associate editor of Clear Magazine and a Detroit-area freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]
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