TWH – During my time at PantheaCon, I was fortunate enough to speak with Geraldine Beskin, the owner of the Atlantis Bookshop in London. Like myself, this was Geraldine’s first trip to PantheaCon and we both were amazed and delighted by the enormity of it all. When we sat down to talk, my original intention was simply to ask her about the changes at the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, but we were quickly sidetracked discussing everything from the Museum to Atlantis; from the Wildwood Tarot to the Occult in film. When two Gemini sit down for a conversation, the topic never stays constant.
Here is an overview and history based on that fascinating discussion.
Geraldine Beskin is the longtime owner of the 92-year-old Atlantis Bookshop in London. Located in the Bloomsbury district on Museum Street two blocks from the British Museum, the shop is the oldest and most well-known occult shop in England and quite possibly the world. It was established in 1922 by occultist Michael Houghton. As Geraldine says, “it was founded by magicians for magicians.” Some of the most well-known occultists and witches have passed through its doors including Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner, Dion Fortune, W.B. Yeats and so many more.
Geraldine’s own history is very much tied to Atlantis. In 1962 her own father assumed ownership of the store. As a result she grew up in and around London’s magical world; absorbing its energy and learning from the people that came and went. She recalls walking past Gerald Gardner on the shop’s stairs as he headed up to a meeting with her father and others. Although she never formally met him, she knew he was considered the “king of witches.” Today as she shares that memory, she laughs saying, “There stood one asthmatic Gemini named Geraldine looking at another asthmatic Gemini named Gerald.”
At the age of 19, she began working in the shop and then eventually took over as owner in 1972. Due to family responsibilities, she sold the shop in 1989; only to return again in 2002. When she returned to town and repurchased the store, news spread quickly that “Geraldine was back in town.” It was as if the universe was set right again. Geraldine was back where she belonged.
Today she and her daughter Bali together own and manage Atlantis. They give us a tour in the following video taken by Jack Dark, writer of the popular essay: “A Very Brief History of British Paganism.”
After 92 years in operation, Atlantis is still a shop by magicians for magicians. The world surrounding Witchcraft and Witches is a far cry from what it was in 1922. The store has seen an immense amount of cultural change but has continued to play an important role in England’s magical culture. As Geraldine notes, people from all walks of life stop by, just as Crowley did, for a cup of tea and good conversation. In fact, it was a visit to Atlantis that inspired Shai Feraro, the Israeli academic, to pursue his research on Paganism and Feminist Spirituality. He said:
After a visit to the British Museum, I stumbled upon an occult bookshop on Museum Street. As you probably guess by now, it was the Atlantis Bookshop … This led to my M.A. thesis on the development of the Feminist Spirituality Movement in the United States during the 1970s-1980s.
Authors John and Caitlin Matthews are two regular visitors to Atlantis. They said:
Atlantis Bookshop is a central point for all who are seekers on the path of occult wisdom. It’s at once a resource, a drop in for Pagans and seekers of all kinds of magical arts. Geraldine is, of course, herself a fount of knowledge and wisdom, and her expertise on Esoteric arts and practices is both practical and informed. … Whenever we have time in London we call in at Atlantis for tea, a chat and a browse … Atlantis is a shining light in the jungle of London.
Today Atlantis publishes its own material under its imprint Neptune Press just as it did in 1922. They also sponsor workshops and launch books. John Matthews says:
When we were making a trailer for a TV show set partly in the 40s we filmed several scenes in the basement and courtyard of Atlantis, which doubled for wartime London. They have been consistently helpful to us, promoting our work and … drawing the attention of customers to our fledgling publishing company, Mythwood Books.
Geraldine herself offers lectures on occult topics such as “Woman of the Golden Dawn,” “Aleister Crowley: The Man behind the Mask” and “Many P. Hall: The Murdered Mystic.”
Atlantis has become an important part of British Witchcraft history. Lurking in its walls, there is a treasure trove of stories from times past. It is an artifact in its own right and even a museum with Geraldine as its curator.
In that way it is not at all surprising that Geraldine works closely with the famous Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall. Established by Cecil Williamson shortly after the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, the Museum was originally located on the Isle of Man. After a few unsuccessful moves, the Museum landed in the small fishing village of Boscastle in 1960 where it has remained ever since. Like Atlantis, the Museum has survived much change including a devastating flood in 2004. The waters washed away much of the town and buried the Museum’s entire first floor in mud. Despite this devastation, “the museum lost almost nothing,” says Geraldine who calls the cottage magical.
In October of 2013, owner Graham King announced his retirement. He bought the museum from an ailing Williamson in 1996 and has been running it successfully ever since. His successor is high-profile art director and set designer, Simon Costin. Geraldine herself remarked how thrilled she was with this appointment. She believes that Simon’s modern media savvy will be a refreshing addition to the British landmark.
However Simon Costin was brought on for more than just media awareness. He has a unique passion for the preservation of British folklore and the Museum of Witchcraft fits that bill. Although Costin is not a witch himself, Witchcraft history “ticks his boxes,” as Geraldine described. In a 2010 interview with artCornwall.org Costin said:
I have been interested in Myths and Folk Stories for as long as I can remember … [This interest] is completely separate from my work as a practice but there is a blurring of interests. I have been involved with it for so long now that it’s hard to say where one thing stops and another starts. My early artworks were influenced by fairy stories and folk tales. Much of my work … takes me into mysterious other worlds where changes in scale have echoes of Alice in Wonderland, so I suppose there are overlaps.
In 2009 he started a traveling Museum for British Folklore.
Quite often over the years, I have tried to find a place where I could learn more about Britain’s rich folk heritage only to discover that we don’t actually have any such institution. This is strange really when we produce so much of it.
Today the award-winning Museum stands as one of the most recognizable tourists destinations in Cornwall, if not England itself. Author John Matthews has remarked, “The museum of Witchcraft is a study centre which enables serious students to get beyond the sensational (although there’s a fair bit of that too)… to the real history of Witchcraft.” In December 2013, the museum announced that it is applying for official museum accreditation and will remain in Cornwall for at least the next five years.
During our conversation Geraldine couldn’t say enough positive things about the future of the Museum. She also added that the cottage “oozes charm.” It appears small from the outside but when you step inside it goes on and on like a “Harry Potter building.” Together the Atlantis Bookshop and the Museum of Witchcraft have become two respected institutions aimed at preserving what Simon Costin called “British folk heritage” and additionally the history of Witchcraft. Going forward both appear to be in very good hands.