Hallowe’en approaches. Here in London we are in autumn at last. Golden brown leaves are underfoot on the sidewalks of our tree-lined streets here in Bloomsbury, my neighbourhood. Yesterday I walked down to the open market on East Street to buy ten yards of orange fabric to decorate the front window of my occult bookshop. We’re scouting for pumpkins to carve to put around on the display tables amidst the books.Halloween is a time for remembering ancestors and, this week, I am honouring the ancestors of the wonderful tradition of the magical store, where ancient tomes, kindly conversations, and recommendations come together. Pagans and mystics of the western traditions historically don’t have churches or congregations. We’ve found one another in these book-lined spaces. It’s from the occult bookseller that we’ve received our guidance for reading; we’ve got our introductions to the local coven or the address of the local magical lodge.
In my own city of London, the ancestor booksellers are many and indeed illustrious. John Watkins, a friend of occultist Helen Blavatsky, set up his bookshop on Charing Cross Road in the early 1890s. His occultist customers used his shop as a meeting place and pressed him into publishing some of their work. Among them were members of the Golden Dawn, including WB Yeats and MacGregor Mathers and, of course, Aleister Crowley. Eventually Watkins’ son Geoffrey took over for his father. Carl Jung was a friend. Aldous Huxley was also known to be a bookshop regular. The famous poet Kathleen Raine wrote this of the son who inherited the bookseller mantle:
London’s Atlantis Bookshop was founded in 1922 by Michael Houghton, a Jewish immigrant with a passion for the mysteries and poetry, and who reputedly held ceremonies in the basement room of his shop on Museum Street. Caroline Wise, who owned the shop through the 1990s, related to me that, during the second world war, Houghton took in refugee Jewish children who had been smuggled out of Nazi Europe. Houghton’s customers included Gerald Gardner, for whom he kindly published his book on Wicca – which apparently took a while to sell.
He welcomed his customers as his guests, assuming that we were seekers for wisdom, and meeting each of us at the level of our learning (or our ignorance) as he was well able to do. He seemed always to have time to listen.
Atlantis and Watkins are both still flourishing in London. We at Treadwells, having opened in 2003, are the new kids on the block. We are honoured to have such predecessors as those booksellers. This is my town, these are my ancestors of place. I owe them honour for their help in cultivating the traditions of my spiritual vocation and my bookselling profession.
The young Christina visited the occult bookshops of London for the first time in early 1990, when still fresh off the overnight train from Northern Scotland. The noticeboards listed groups, meetings, conferences. These scrappy bits of paper and cards were a key to the places I would find real witches, real magicians. The booksellers at these shops looked knowledgeable and kindly, but I was always too daunted to strike up a conversation. In those days I was embarrassed to be the new kid. So I hid behind the books as I’d done since childhood, silently bringing my purchases to the check out and equally silently scribbling down the phone numbers and addresses of the contacts on the community board I’ve learned that my story is a common one for that era.This summer I traveled to New York City and looked along the streets for the site of the old Magickal Childe, where so many gathered in the seventies and eighties, to find one another, find adventure and misadventure, and to connect for magic, for withcraft, and for personal explorations. Here, gay men met up and gave birth to a men’s initiatory tradition of witchcraft known as the Minoan Brotherhood. Here teenagers came through the doors to nervously browse and buy their first black-covered paperbacks – Michael Bertiaux’s Voudon Gnostic Workbook or Doreen Valiente’s ABC of Wicca. And although the bookshop’s doors closed years ago, its precedent continues to inspire those of us who run esoteric bookshops today.
When I travel around America or around the UK, I can’t help but pop into every small city’s esoteric shop. Whether it’s Nottingham or Norwich or Albany, I have to go in. Usually I end up having a chat with the owner, who is commonly the friendly person behind the cash register. We talk about “how business is” and about the effect of the internet on bookstores. But, most of all, we talk about our spiritual calling – to have an open door for the community of Pagans, magicians and seekers in the place where we live. It’s a hard life. We commiserate with one another, but all our conversations come back to the fact that we feel we have to do it.
In our conversations, we reminisce about the good old days, remembering those who did it before us. And, though we don’t always say it to one another, I get the feeling that we all look to the ancestors of the occult bookshop tradition for strength when we don’t know how we’re going to make the rent this month. They give us patience when obstreperous occultists lecture us on what we’ve known for years. They hover as benign presences over our book launches and watch over us from the upper corners of the dusty book cases.And so, as I unlock the door of my own shop this morning, this prayer is in my mind:
Bless us, ancestors of the occult bookshops, and we in turn bless you and thank you for all you did in your lifetimes. We try to do you proud, and stand in your shoes as best we can. May the bookshop continue to be the circle between the worlds, a meeting place of joy and peace and communion.