SWINGING his hand toward a nearby rack, a busy Boston newsstand operator says, ``Astrology magazines are selling like hotcakes. We carry six different kinds of them, and they go in no time.'' A Florida professor reports: ``The pendulum is swinging back! We're definitely seeing a resurgence of student interest in astrology and other aspects of the occult.''
In Buffalo, N.Y., a group of academics awaits replies to a letter sent to every major US newspaper, asking that disclaimers be run next to the growing number of horoscopes.
Religions condemn it. Scientists scoff at it. Comedians have a heydey with it. But astrology - the ancient belief linking events on earth to the movement of heavenly bodies - is on a roll.
Those recent reports of astrology's presence in the White House were simply the more visible signposts of its presence. In a scientific and presumably skeptical age, it has a place - large or small - in the lives of an alarmingly broad spectrum of Americans.
Nearly two-thirds of US adults read astrology material periodically, and of these, some 26 million read them regularly, according to a report by Jon D. Miller of Northern Illinois University's Public Opinion Laboratory.
An April Gallup survey found that 85 percent of Americans know what ``sign'' they were born under - up from 76 percent in 1975. Twenty-five percent of Americans were shown to read astrology columns regularly - up 2 percent since 1975 (although there was a marked drop in Americans who professed a belief in astrology.
Some 5,000 professional astrologers practice now in the United States, says the American Federation of Astrologers, an international group with local affiliates. AFA estimates there are at least 50,000 part-time practitioners.
An increasing number of US newspapers have been carrying astrology columns during the last 10 years, says Charles Lehman, survey research manager for the Newspaper Advertisers Bureau. In 1987 it was some 83 percent, or about 1,670 papers.
Dial-a-horoscope services are now available. New York Telephone, for instance, reportedly receives about 1 million calls a month.
Public libraries offer a variety of books on astrology, some of them friendly or even downright proselytizing.
Astrology, in fact, is enjoying its first bull market since the Vietnam war. William Heim, dean of the college of arts and letters at the University of South Florida, vividly recalls that turbulent time in 1970 when he taught a literature course about occult themes like astrology. ``We enrolled over 200 students in a single class!'' he notes.
During the next 10 years, enthusiasm for the course waned - and with it enrollment - as students became more pragmatic. ``But within the last few years,'' Professor Heim observes, ``it looks like we've been starting up again. In addition to student interest, you can look at bookstores and catalogs. More publications about the occult are gaining popularity. There's a new market.''
The American Federation of Astrologers alone, in fact, now has about 400 titles for sale, according to its executive secretary, Robert Cooper. ``We print an average of one new book on astrology a week,'' he says, ``offered through bookstores, teachers, and affiliated groups.''
He also points to other signs of public interest since 1985. ``Mail, phone calls, inquiries are constantly increasing each month. We find astrology is getting more acceptable in the minds of the general public. They're willing to listen.''
And you don't have to look far to see the results. Turn on the TV set and hear constant references: a harried airline pilot says, ``I'd like to see my horoscope today.'' Actor E.G. Marshall, as retired President Eisenhower telling his life story, gives much of the credit to ``my lucky star.''
A PBS series about Louis Mountbatten shows him changing the carefully planned date for a momentous historical event: the independence (and partition) of India - to make the astrologers happy. That was no small factor in Lord Mountbatten's negotiations. After all, astrology has been a potent force in India and elsewhere in the East for many centuries.
These scenes are only picking up on the way many people think and talk. Astrology is woven into speech habits and thought modes. ``As above, so below,'' is the way it's been described. Starspeak can be traced back through Western culture: to Shakespeare's ``Star-cross'd'' lovers, Romeo and Juliet; to Chaucer's Knight's Tale from his ``Canterbury Tales,'' with a plot that depends on astrology; to the great Irish poet Yeats, who based much of his important work on astrology and theosophy.
D.H. Lawrence talked of the influence of stars and planets, and wrote: ``We and the cosmos are one.... The sun is a great heart whose tremors run through our smallest veins.... Who knows the power that Saturn has over us or Venus.... It is a vital power rippling exquisitely through all time.''
Today most artists and writers have the same notion in some degree. If a murder takes place in a film, ``we expect it to be a dark and stormy night,'' Heim points out. ``A love scene is expected to be on a tranquil spring day.''
But what accounts for astrology's appeal as a means of help? Heim says it's partly a loss of faith in reason, as during Vietnam.
``If a student's name can be picked out of a basket to go over to Vietnam, possibly to die, that doesn't give them much of a sense of control,'' he says. ``So they start looking for some sign of an outside order, a design in the universe. And astrologers can look up there in the heavens and say, `Hey, if you know the secret to this, you have a little bit of control.'''
In seeking this, astrology has many forms and varying claims of accuracy. But basically it considers a person's zodiacal ``signs'' - sections of the heavens the sun passes through, as determined by place and time of birth. Many US astrologers also include counseling, using a person's own astrological chart as a reference point.
``Part of its appeal is the way it's individualized,'' says Paul Kurtz, a professor of philosophy at the Univerity of New York at Buffalo. ``Your own horoscope is a personal application of this ancient system to each person every day.''
A group of which Professor Kurtz is chairman - the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICP) - casts an especially skeptical eye on astrology. Recently the group sent letters to most major American newspapers, asking that disclaimers be run next to astrology columns.
It's too early to assess the results, says a spokesman, but so far they've been disappointing, although newspaper omnsbudsmen have replied positively.
The committee, whose long and impressive membership list runs through several disciplines and countries, cites many systematic efforts over the years to test astrology.
The results, says CSICP, demonstrate there is no credible evidence to support astrology's claims. Its charts and horoscopes are an unreliable guide to conduct, the group maintains.
Tomorrow: How astrology got here - and what its modern supporters say.