CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA – For decades and maybe centuries, the metaphysical bookshop has provided far more than reading material, statuettes and candles. The independently-owned store becomes a veritable community center for a local population of people, many of whom must hide their interests in occult practice and other minority religious beliefs. Whether the store is labeled New Age, Occult or Metaphysical, such shops become treasured institutions within their environment. The attachment can be so strong that when one must close down, the community mourns its loss.This is exactly what has happened in the town of Charlottestville, Virginia. The Quest Bookshop, owned and operated by Kay Allison since 1978, is slowly preparing to shut its doors. In August, Allison, who will be 84 next month, has decided that it is time to retire. With no interested buyers on the horizon, the store must be closed. An era is coming to an end.
Lonnie Murray, a local Pagan (animist) and naturalist, said, “Since 1978 Kay Allison has provided the community so much more than just a Metaphysical Bookstore. She has been a model small business owner that gives back to the community in many ways, including her program that provides books to inmates, and by providing a place where people … could come to seek answers to life’s big questions and find acceptance and welcome.”
In 1984, Allison opened The Quest Institute, a non-profit organization aimed at facilitating interreligious dialog, education, spiritual exploration and much more. The Institute is responsible for a popular program called “Books Behind Bars,” which collects and sends books to inmates across the state of Virginia. Not all the material is religious or spiritual in nature, as the goal is primarily to facilitate education. On its website, the Institute has shared a number of response letters from inmates, prison chaplains, and administrators. One such letter reads:
Thank you for not forgetting about us. Thank you for volunteering your time. Thank you for your love. Because of you all I am able to share what I learn with others.You don’t even know me yet I’ve learned so much from all of you. You all selflessly give of yourselves and your example has allowed me to “pass it forward.” . . . We are what we think! Because of people like you I am changing I want to share that for the first time in my life I know SELFLESSNESS. Thank you! – JWP
Over the years, Allison has also provided her local community with spiritually-focused educational opportunities. She has invited a diversity of speakers, which have included renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Buddhist monk Nawang Khechog and spiritual teacher Ram Dass. Along with such workshops, lectures and book signings, the shop has offered regular readings by various local practitioners.
In an interview with The Wild Hunt, Allison said that visitors have come to her shop from all over the world looking for unique items and sometimes just to meet a friendly face. Murray agreed, saying “For people outside the religious mainstream, her store is a place where people have traditionally gone to find others like themselves.”
That is the unique nature of the local metaphysical store. Often Pagans and Heathens can recall the very first time they ever stepped foot into one of these places, or the first time they bought a book on magic, a tarot deck, runes or other similar products. In many ways, these moments in the metaphysical store become a type of initiation rite, a ritual and even a religiously spiritual experience, in their own right. Losing that store can be a profound loss.
Interestingly, Charlottesville itself has been home to several notable figures in Pagan history. Gelb Botkin, founder of the Church of Aphrodite, left his Long Island home to live the later part of his life in Charlottesville. Once there, he re-established his Church, which is considered “the first Pagan religious group officially recognized as a religion by a modern state,” as noted by Dmitry Galtsin in Pomegranate Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14, No 1 (2012). The Church of Aphrodite was incorporated in 1939 but did not survive after Botkin’s death in 1969.
Additionally, Raymond Buckland spent a few years in the 1980s living in Charlottesville, before moving to San Diego. While in Virgnia, Buckland set up and ran his popular Seax Wicca correspondence course, which eventually had upwards of 1000 students. Allison said that Buckland and his wife “were lovely people and good friends of hers.” Buckland hosted several popular lectures and workshops at the Quest Bookshop.
But as Murray aptly pointed out, “While Charlottesville has had such memorable residents as Gleb Botkin and Raymond Buckland, it has always been the people like Kay who hold together the fabric of community.”
Although Allison herself is not Pagan, she is considered to be part of the local Pagan community experience. As noted in The Daily Progress, she named the bookshop “Quest” because that is what she has always been on: a spiritual quest. Allison explained that as a child she had an awareness of spirit, saying “I was trying to find people who had more wisdom than I did. There was an absolutely fabulous couple living in Afton who were so wise and had an extensive library … He had the scientific books, and she had the metaphysical books. I would go out and visit with them and come home with a stack of books to read. I’d read them, take them back and get another stack. That was very good for me.”Now at the age of 84, Allison has provided the same educational and spiritual resources to many local residents, visitors, inmates, and prison ministries. A sign above her shop’s door reads, “magic happens here,” and she said “That is true.” One regular customer noted on the shop’s Facebook page
[Quest] was a sanctuary for me, like a few place in C’ville. Sweet smells of incense and oils, and pages, sparkle of crystals in the sun, candles and cloths, and lots of good books, plenty of places to sit undisturbed and read for as long as you like. Kind people behind the counter to chat with if you felt like it — and who would leave you alone if you didn’t.
In August 2014, Allison announced her retirement and the sale of the store. She said that she has “a lot of things that [she’d] like to do.” Outside of taking some vacation time, she wants to continue helping people. That work will include managing the Quest Institute’s Books Behind Bars program.
Daughter Janet Holmes, a spiritual healer in her own work, has been helping her mother with the transition. As of now, the two women are “cleaning house” and selling off some of the shop’s inventory with significant mark downs.
Unfortunately, no buyer has been found yet. Friends of the shop have attempted to raise money through an IndieGoGo campaign called “Save the Quest Bookshop.” However, with only 4 days left in that campaign, they are still very far away from reaching the goal needed to keep the store open.
The Quest Bookshop will remain open until the end of February. Both Allison and Holmes remain hopeful that a buyer will turn up in the next few weeks. Allison said that “there absolutely is still a place for [the metaphysical store] and even for its expansion.” However, if a purchase doesn’t happen within the next month, an era will come to an end in Charlottesville.