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Reading the occult

Essay | 7 minute read
London has a rich tradition of occult bookshops that specialise in everything from tarot to Arab protective magic and the psychic hazards of sex. Some of these have served as meeting places for poets and artists dabbling in the dark arts

Can it be coincidence that the shop where Harry Potter and the other Hogwarts students buy their books on magic is in the same location as its Muggle world equivalent? Flourish & Blotts is on Diagon Alley, which is accessed via The Leaky Cauldron, a slightly dodgy pub on the Charing Cross Road in central London. Watkins Books is just off Charing Cross Road, on Cecil Court, an easily missed pedestrian street.

Scholars who study the Potterverse believe that J. K. Rowling’s magical shopping precinct might have been inspired by Cecil Court. The writer got to know it in the 1980s when working for Amnesty International, whose offices were nearby. The popular ‘Tour for Muggles’ now swings by twice a day, with the tour guide specifically pointing out Watkins Books and suggesting that if the group’s divination or transfigurations skills are rusty, this is the place to brush up on them.

Watkins certainly stands out among the thoroughfare’s other Victorian shop-fronts. Its hanging shop sign depicts Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of magic and writing, and its window is strewn with tarot cards, rune stones and charms. Books on display include the 2019 Witches’ Companion and Plants of the Devil. Inside, the Thoth motif is repeated on the carpet, and the shelves are filled with volumes on ‘magick’, ‘channelling’ and other arcane disciplines.

The store caters for Wiccans and witches, New Age seekers and seers and the otherwise mystically inclined. It’s a one-stop shop for all your magical needs. You can buy a book of spells here, have your tarot read and get into a discussion about whether John Dee would beat Nicolas Flamel in a wizard duel.

London’s oldest occult bookshop was established by John Watkins in the early 1890s. He had been given the idea by his friend Madame Blavatsky, a Russian medium and the founder of the Theosophical Society, an esoteric study group popular with magicians. (It still exists – its UK headquarters are in Marylebone.) Blavatsky bemoaned the fact that it was difficult to buy books on mysticism in London. Watkins realised there was a gap in the market.

The shop has a colourful history and has enjoyed distinguished patronage. Early customers included the poet W. B. Yeats and the writer and occultist, Aleister Crowley, the so-called ‘Great Beast’ (an accomplished self-publicist, he liked to portray himself as a Death Eater). Both were members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret fin de siècle organisation devoted to the practice of ritual magic.

According to John Symonds’ biography of Crowley, Watkins once invited him to demonstrate his fabled powers. He told Watkins to close his eyes, and when the bookseller opened them, both Crowley and all the books had disappeared. History does not relate what happened next.

Shop legend has it that during the Second World War, British military intelligence officers, aware that some senior Nazis believed in astrology, sought advice on the topic at Watkins Books. It flourished during the occult revival of the Swinging Sixties when the flower children were scrutinising each other’s auras, and no-one could go to the corner shop without consulting the I Ching. Such was his popular influence that Crowley featured among the cover stars of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s album. Mick Jagger was a customer during this period, seen leaving the shop with a pile of books. It may have been 1968, the year he filmed Performance, which was co-directed by Donald Cammell whose father was another of Crowley’s biographers.

Today, Watkins is owned by Etan Ilfeld, an entrepreneur who studied physics at Stanford University. It may seem an unusual venture for a physicist, but the fact that Ilfeld invented and promotes diving chess – yes, it is exactly what the name suggests – indicates that he is quite happy operating outside the bounds of the conventional. ‘My mother was interested in the occult and Watkins was her favourite shop,’ he says of his decision to save it from administration in 2010. ‘Watkins is a real gem, an institution.’

One of Ilfeld’s innovations was to launch a quarterly magazine, Watkins Mind Body Spirit, which publishes an annual list of the 100 most spiritually influential living people. In 2018 it had the Pope at Number 1 and Russell Brand at Number 16, streets ahead of the Archbishop of Canterbury at a disappointing Number 42. Watkins also holds book signings and author talks which it makes available on YouTube.

‘We are actually doing pretty well given the competition we face from the likes of Amazon,’ says Ilfeld. ‘I attribute that to us not being a generic bookstore – we’re very much in a niche.’

But, as befits a city with a rich magical tradition, Ilfeld’s esoteric emporium is not London’s only occult bookshop. Like Watkins, Treadwell’s and the Atlantis Bookshop are as much sanctuaries and salons as they are shops, hosting discussion groups, meetings and lectures on topics as diverse as Arab protective magic, the curse of Robert Graves’s White Goddess and the psychic hazards of sex.

Atlantis, on the doorstep of the British Museum, opened in 1922 and is now owned and run by mother and daughter team, Geraldine and Bali Beskin. They are both witches, as was Geraldine’s father who also worked in the shop. Occultist customers have included Dion Fortune, author of Psychic Self-Defence, and the artist Austin Osman Spare. ‘Our shop is a place of pilgrimage for many who want to visit an actual place that their favourite authors have actually been,’ says Bali. ‘You can touch the same door handles that Crowley touched or see one of our exhibitions in the Gardner Room downstairs, which is where Gerald Gardner, the grandfather of modern day witchcraft, met with his coven. It’s wonderful that London has a thriving occult scene. We happily share customers with the other bookshops in town and often joke there are grooves in the pavements between us and them.’

Treadwell’s is a short walk away, on the other side of the museum. It opened in 2003 but quickly established itself as an important player on the magical landscape. ‘I had been a lecturer in medieval history for eleven years and then I decided shortly after my fortieth birthday that I wanted to do something different with the second half of my life,’ says its owner, Christina Oakley Harrington. ‘I knew the occult scene very well, having been involved in paganism and witchcraft since my early twenties. There had been a shop in Camden which had recently closed. I felt that London needed a certain number of occult bookshops to maintain a critical mass. I was afraid that if it got down to two, we would be in bad shape, so I left academia and started Treadwell’s.’

Just as there are fads in the general world of publishing from the misery memoir and the malady memoir to the trendy fascination with neuroscience, fashions come and go in occult books too. ‘In the past three to four years, interest in teen witchcraft and crystals and tarot has really gone up,’ says Oakley Harrington. ‘Tarot is having a moment right now. There are always ups and downs, and they often have to do with what’s happening in popular culture. Harry Potter prompted a big interest in books about magic and about mythical animals.’

Photo by Sergi Viladesau/Unsplash

According to Etan Ilfeld: ‘Tarot is very big. I’d also say western magic in general is on the up and up. Millennials are fascinated by magic and mysticism.’ Bali Beskin adds: ‘At the moment witchcraft, tarot and Aleister Crowley are the main subject areas, but then they always have been for us. Egypt and “Mystery History” are rather quiet at the moment.’

The shops all agree that there is no typical customer profile. ‘We have customers who are in their seventies who’ve been worshipping the goddess of nature ever since they smoked their first spliff in 1968,’ says Oakley Harrington. ‘We’ve got former punks who are all about sigil magic. We get sixteen- to twenty-three-year-olds who are going crazy for crystals and feminist witchcraft. So there isn’t a type. We also have people who tell us things like, “I’m a professor of anthropology – don’t tell my students but I meditate under a full moon and I belong to a witches’ coven.” Those sort of people tend to feel safe at Treadwell’s because I come from an academic background.’

So, with the nights long and Halloween (or Samhain as the Wiccans call it) behind us, try Treadwell’s, Watkins or Atlantis if you feel like curling up with a good grimoire. Muggles are welcome, though no-one is saying whether the Rolling Stones singer still nips in, and discretion prohibits the naming of other celebrity clients.

‘We do have a significant number of people from the music and film industries,’ says Oakley Harrington, ‘and about eight or nine regulars who are famous. I never recognise them but my colleagues do. I’ve sometimes had a nice chat with someone and asked what has brought them to town. They’ve said they play music and I’ll say, “Oh, that’s nice,” and then when they leave I discover they’re playing the O2.’

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