The Commerce of Witchcraft: The Occult Shop

The Commerce of Witchcraft: The Occult Shop October 3, 2016

I have a bit of a confession to make: I love visiting metaphysical stores and occult shops.

Twenty years ago, when I was a very young enthusiastic Witch, armed with a more-rust-than-paintjob car and a miniscule budget, I managed to hit every shop I could find in a 1-2 hour radius from Providence, RI – usually in careful alignment with some other trip that would bring in some money (psychic fairs, art shows, dance things, etc).  When I moved/began to travel more, usually my first stop in research was to see what shops were in the area.

"Stickwork" by Patrick Dougherty, located in Salem, MA
“What the Birds Know”  a Stickwork Sculpture by Patrick Dougherty, located in Salem, MA

Most of the time I wasn’t on a quest to buy something in particular as I really didn’t have much money to spend, and was fine with making do with what I could.  Rather, it was more about visiting a whole shop dedicated to witchy things, and seeing how each was different.  To stand in an often beautifully-crafted and curated store with so many wonderful things under one roof, so much potential knowledge as well.  More often than not though, I would make a small purchase of some kind to help support the store: herbs, a candle, or whatever I could manage that also caught my eye.

I still get a kick out of visiting witchy shops, as my partner will attest to, as we went in and out of nearly every viable shop in Salem this past weekend.  We were in town for a wedding, and so we allocated some time to walk around the city.  Heading to Salem during October was an annual tradition for our Pagan Society back in the day, as we loved how everything was decorated and just “out there” – and we played a bit of dress-up ourselves too.  I still enjoy the festivities, but I’m even less of a fan of the crowds, and I’m in my usual attire (normal for me, but that’s not saying much).  But I like to see what’s new, different, and also still the same.

I’m lucky to have a better budget now, but I still tend to keep expenditures small unless it’s something that’s incredibly unique that I must have/need/desire – and I can safely transport home.  AND I really have to like the store as well.  I try to support my local shops and artisans in Seattle as much as possible too.

One of the things I noticed in my younger days, was the vibe of the shop.  Was it helpful? Friendly? Flakey? Distant and aloof? Dripping in ego?  If I didn’t like the feel of the place, I’d be hard-pressed to accumulate something there.  If I enjoyed my visit, I’d find a thing I could eventually use or gift – and be sure to come back again.

photo of Tempest by Nathaniel
photo of Tempest by Nathaniel

So it’s fascinating to watch my partner’s reactions as he perused the shops, scoping out the books and decks in particular – and basing his decision largely on whether he liked the shop or not.  As you may imagine, with at least a dozen metaphysical/occult shops in close proximity to each other, there’s a LOT of overlap in product.  (There’s also a lot of product in many of shops catering more towards the tourists then actual practitioners.) So for him, it largely came down to how friendly the person was at the counter, and how the shop felt.

If I was going to be very organized and critical about it, I’d break the different kinds of shops/feels into perhaps 3 categories:

-Majority of items geared towards the practitioner, but still friendly to tourists/anyone interested
-Many items geared towards the tourist, yet enough significant items for serious practice, indifferent attitude presented until your intent/presence was recognized
-A mix of both kinds of items, and a severe attempt for “witchier than thou” in atmosphere, with more glares than greetings, often shooting off poor advice.
(and sometimes there was a mix of all 3 depending upon where and by whom you stood in a shop.)

We found all three kinds on our trip, the first category making the biggest impression thankfully, but the rest made me ponder.  I really enjoyed listening to the shopkeepers be patient, grounded, and informative to newbies and tourists alike, such as one gentleman explaining magick to a curious grandfatherly-looking man, using belief in caffeine as a metaphor (it was pretty darn good actually.)  Yet around the corner, I heard a woman butcher her way through a psychic reading of some sort in the corner of a busy shop, her voice loud enough for me to hear every word from 10 feet away and no curtain present to protect the privacy of the querent.  In another shop (that was absolutely gorgeous), a young girl (maybe 10 years old) was all excited for her mom to look at the spell listed on her birthday in the spell-a-day book, while both the mom and another reader-lady in a corner spouted out poor but well-meaning commentary/advice in kind.  Down the street, a patient woman helped a young foreign lady gather the herbs/ingredients she needed and talked about where they came from and how to best use them.  Further down the way, another beautiful shop, almost painfully chic in its modern mysticore presentation, marketing to a whole other demographic than the other shops.

I find it all fascinating, as well as somewhat challenging to keep my mouth shut (I am Gemini, I HAVE INFORMATION TO TELL YOU!), but stepping back to look at it all, it really is a good slice of life.  We tend to think of the occult shop as a place of hard-to-find knowledge, but it’s so many other things.  It is a point of outreach to anyone seeking, hope of direction for beginners.  It can be a place to satisfy curiosity, to fascinate, or to oogle (depending on the person). It can sell tools, candles, herbs, jewelry, everything how-to, and it can also market a lifestyle. It can also be a community space, a workshop or ritual area, a meeting place.  It can be a magnet for questionable folks and energies. It is a means of making a living and a way of life for some – and a way to capitalize for others.  Sometimes it will be a good, informative experience, and other times, well, a learning experience in other ways.  It may start someone on a new path, or unfortunately dissuade them from it for years. All important things to keep in mind whether you’re the owner, worker, or shopper.

In the end, the occult shop is still often the first real experience the general public will have with witchy things, outside of books, movies, etc.  So major props to all of the proprietors working hard to provide quality products and information, to both the newbies and the seasoned – and presenting a positive experience all around.

And also props to those of you who recognize this, and support those local shops the best you can.  Nothing beats being able to hold tools in your hands first, scoop the herbs out of the jars yourself, and meet other folks in your area.  That $4 you could have saved on amazon is more than worth the experience of being there firsthand.  Online may seem cheaper, but that physical store has a lot more overhead to deal with – and having a place for classes, meetings, rituals, or book signings is something you can’t quite get online.

Overall, when we’re looking at the commerce rooted around the practice of witchcraft and similar paths, it comes down to the value of the experience above all else.

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