PARKERSBURG, W. Va. — A single mother who wanted to bring in some extra income by opening up a tarot-reading shop has found her plans thwarted by a decades-old law that most city council members weren’t even aware was on the books. However, it was definitely on the radar for the zoning administrator who explained that she’d need a zoning variance to practice her craft legally. Instead, Heather Cooper opted to try to get the law repealed.Cooper, who has been reading tarot at home, was offered space in a friend’s building to open up a new metaphysical shop called Hawthorn, which would focus on card readings. A longtime resident of this West Virginia city, Cooper learned that there’s been a law on the books forbidding the practice of any “trade or profession having as its object the foretelling of happenings of future events.” While there isn’t a tarot police enforcing the law, which was first passed in 1906 and then amended since 1947, Cooper decided she wanted to start her business on the right foot.
“I’m too honest for my own good, and put a stop to the readings. I have a store and no customers; nothing to advertise,” she said.
Her shop Hawthorn has not remained entirely vacant while this process plays out; Cooper has opened the space up to local artists who wish to display their work.
Anti-fortunetelling laws are nothing new. In a 2014 Wild Hunt report on efforts to repeal such legislation, Jason Pitzl-Waters discussed how such statues come into being:
There have been, generally speaking, two primary reasons why fortune telling and other divinatory services are banned in a town or city. The first reason is to address concerns about fraud, about individuals running cons to bilk the gullible out of their money. The second reason is about religion, specifically in America, the Christian prohibition against (some forms of) divination. Often these two threads will conjoin, sometimes inflamed by prejudices against minorities who have engaged in divination to make money (the Roma, for example). In our modern era, these laws have been increasingly challenged by those who believe it limits free speech, or the free exercise of religious beliefs.
Despite the town being located in a what is considered to be a conservative region, Cooper has not found Parkersburg to be populated with people opposed to divination on religious grounds. For her, the hurdle is the time value of money. Even with city council members appearing supportive, Cooper is unfamiliar with the process for changing the law, one which invariably isn’t quick.“I don’t know what I will do” in the meantime, she said. “[My] family sacrificed so much for this business. Hawthorn, my little tree of knowledge, is not doing so well now.”
Cooper doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer for advice on the actual procedure, but she recognizes that she needs one. This week, she started a crowdfunding campaign to get that professional guidance. She said:
I am fighting this and have hired a lawyer so I can get this city ordinance removed. My business is just getting started so I do not have the funds to afford said lawyer. Please help me in this fight so I and other readers can use our gifts in the town that we love.
With an autistic child to care for, Cooper hopes that the flexibility of her own business will give her the ability to earn a bit more money “to buy that loaf of bread” since her responsibilities at home make it difficult to work a job with set hours. She’s been interested in tarot since she was a teenager, and been reading professionally for over a year.
Cooper is optimistic that this law can be repealed without controversy, although she admits to having some trepidation. A similar effort in Front Royal, Virginia met with stiff resistance only a few years ago, and if this debate is framed in a religious context, it could bring out opposition to her request.
Cooper, herself, does not label her religious views. “When everybody asks my faith, I say, ‘I’m Heather.’ I was raised in a church, believe what I do; why can’t I just be me? Christians might think I’m horrible, but I can’t really say I’m Wiccan. I’m stuck in the middle. Why should I have to choose a face to do what I love, what I’m good at?”
Nevertheless, she’s well aware that divination is considered a core part of the religious practices of some of her customers. “They use it to guide them, to answer their questions. It’s a kind of prayer for a lot of people,” she explained.
The erstwhile business owner is facing unanticipated challenges with this effort; not only does she need to raise money to start earning money legally, she also is not very comfortable with the public speaking that’s required. “It kind of bothers me,” she said. “Why am I the one that wanted to step up?”
More than willing to follow her own advice, Cooper did consult a psychic about this issue. She was told, “I’m on the right path,” but that the story could get bigger before it’s done, which isn’t exactly what she wanted to hear.
“I gotta do this,” she concluded. “I may be crazy for doing it, but it’s what I gotta do.”