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Mysticism, esoterica and an Egyptian Book of the Dead at LA's 'Little Library of Alexandria'

by Robert Garrova | Off-Ramp

Philosophical Research Society Librarian, Edie Shapiro, opens a copy of "Pilz's Anatomical Manikin." Rebecca Hill/KPCC

At the Philosophical Research Society on Los Feliz Blvd., there's a plaque that reads, "Dedicated to the truth seekers of all time."

That dedication might seem out of place in Los Angeles, a city that made its name with movie sets, facades and props. But as Hollywood was being built, so was a self-proclaimed grand wisdom library near Griffith Park.

The Society's research library houses more than 30,000 esoteric artifacts -- from the writings of Francis Bacon to books on the occult -- all for the purpose of helping 'truth seekers' on their journey.

Obadiah Harris, the Society's current president, knew from a young age that he would be a teacher. It all started one day in high school when his English Literature teacher gave an assignment on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson came to Harris in a dream and after explaining his dream to his teacher, she convinced Harris that it was a sign that he should go on to study the metaphysical and become a teacher.

Dr. Harris went on to learn from as many different teachers as he could, from a Yogi to a Jewish Mystic Sage, eventually earning his Ph.D. in Education from the University of Michigan. But, in Harris' mind, no one could take the place of the Society's original founder -- and teacher -- Manly Palmer Hall.

Hall's life story is ripe for a movie script. He came to Los Angeles in 1919 looking for his mother, who had abandoned him when he was very young. Soon after arriving in Los Angeles, Hall, still a teenager, immersed himself in the occult subculture that was becoming increasingly popular in the 1920s. He wrote extensively and gave lectures in Los Angeles -- all with a focus on the arcane.

After receiving a hefty donation from a wealthy Ventura oil family -- they were enchanted by his public speaking -- Hall traveled everywhere from Egypt to China collecting books -- like a massive 1846 print of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Hall brought all of his treasures back to Los Angeles, eventually storing them in his library -- built for him in the 1930s by Mayan Revival architect Robert Stacy-Judd.

Now a historical landmark, Hall's library still stands as a storehouse of esoterica. As soon as you pass through the library doors  carved with images of both Confucius and Plato, you get a sense of Hall's obsession with the mysterious. You'll find Augustus La Plongeon's daguerreotypes of Mayan ruins, Rosicrucian journals with bright red covers, and even artwork by Hall himself -- a bust of ancient wisdom scholar Helena Blavatsky.

Called the Indiana Jones of Books, Hall got the attention of at least one other famous collector of the time. Dr. Harris says that, according to more than one account from a rare book-buyer, "When William Randolph Hearst and Mr. Hall were at the same auction, he would see Manly Hall make a bid on something. They said, Mr. Hearst would not bid against him."

And while the area has definitely changed since the 30s, Dr. Harris sees a future for the library beyond himself, Hall -- and even Los Angeles. Harris has developed the Society's mission to encompass the University of Philosophical Research, which offers calsses s in everything from Buddhism to Transformational Psychology.

"I knew that I could take this legendary place, and reach out with this material to aspiring students all over the world. And that's what we're doing now," Harris says.

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