Reflecting on the death throes of New Age Shops

I suspect that  The Golden Age of the New Age shop was during the 1990s, but I missed it as I was elsewhere; on a continent where cartomancy and esoterica had always been relatively mainstream and where shops which dealt with herbs, spells, gypsy card- reading and santeria had a long and varied tradition which wasn’t so subject to trends and caprices. Besides, during the 1990s, (the decade when the druids, pagans and celts truly came back from the dead, paving the way for the vampires of the new millennium) I was having a tarot lull. I enjoyed the 1980s – music, fashion, hair, tarot decks, you name it –  and I’m enjoying watching the trends now, but the 1990s rather passed me by in terms of tarot. And that was the boom period of the New Age shops, or so I’m led to believe. Before that, I bought my decks from bookshops, which made them seem more serious somehow, more legitimate in terms of a tool for learning. They were to be read like books, knowledge imparted like books. It wasn’t just about you. These decks sealed in cellophane – the hermetically sealed Hermetic, the Royal Fez Moroccan, the Balbi, the Magickal – had their own corner of the bookshop and were a distinct entity from anything remotely self-helpful. In fact, self-help didn’t really exist then. And tarot certainly wasn’t going to help you find it. Tarot cards were mysterious, occult, a little risky to be seen with and an unknown quantity until you handed over your money and broke the seal.

Then came along all the mass-produced dream catchers, resin dragons, witchy figurines, waterfall pan-pipe CDs and crystals, and suddenly they deserved their own shops and were lumped together under the same New Age roof as if somehow related. I have never liked that name though. I find I only tend to use it if I want to use it perjoratively. I prefer Esoteric Shop, or Magick Shop, or Occult Store (best of all would be simply Tarot Store but I know so few of those). However, New Age Shop seems to be the one that has stuck. And I cannot be sure that they’ll be around for much longer, so what we want to call them may well be a moot point. 

There used to be a good New Age shop here. You know the sort; heady with incense, the sound of trickling fountains, buddha statues, mini zen gardens with a rake and sand, jangling mobiles of strung up dyed agate slices. Oh and cards. They had an excellent selection of cards, an informed mixture (i.e no Doreen Virtue decks), rarities, Meneghello decks, historic decks, the older printings of U.S Games decks (I would sometimes find older printings of favourite decks, out of print ones, hard to find ones), those rare Lo Scarabeo decks from the early days, like the Tarocchi d’Arte editions and baba studios decks when elsewhere they were becoming all too scarce. Then one day, the owner – a tattoed ex-soldier with a stutter – told me that they were moving to smaller premises. Not quite so practical for me in terms of location but still relatively easy to get to. Of course, like most of us, I order most decks online but nothing quite beats the pleasure of choosing a deck from a glass case (and having to ask someone to open it). Plus it goes without saying that I like to support these shops even if sometimes it means paying a little more, just so that they’ll last a little longer. I found so many rarities there; a Vieville, a Ravenswood Eastern Tarot, Ancestral Path and many others and I would enjoy chatting with the owner. Decks languished there for months. People would come in and buy incense and decorative feng shui kitsch but there was never really much of a turnover in terms of cards, though there was a fairly regular clientele in search of spells and protective amulets, talismans to bring in more money and force the loved one back. Over a period of a couple of years I slowly bought up the best of the card stock. After they had moved premises, I think I visited them a couple of times and then one day I called by and there was a notice on the door; that they had moved to another part of town. Not at all practical for me but I made a note and kept meaning to go and visit them on a day off. By the time I caught a taxi there, that shop too had closed and there was only a website address which was – by then –  nonexistent (cont…)

Round about this time, I made an extraordinary discovery. Not ten minutes’ walk from my house, above a vegetarian restaurant, I discovered another New Age shop which consoled me slightly for the one I had lost. I discovered this one quite by chance, like stumbling into Narnia, and I shall never forget the day I discovered it – a crisp, sunny February morning – and I already had most of the decks in the cabinet except one, Julia A Turk’s Navigators Tarot of the Mystic SEA. I bought it and when I opened it, I knew I had found a deck which was going to be significant for me. The shop immediately made me feel that it had treasures to offer and so I revisited it frequently. They sold Lo Scarabeo decks at more or less the same price that I paid online, and I bought many decks from them. I will happily pay a little more when I’m in one of those moods when I want a deck now. Admittedly, they didn’t have a huge selection but I always liked to make a point of supporting them whenever possible. The truth is, for all the practicality of ordering a deck online and the money saved, the magic is lost. Others may disagree but I am of a generation when there were no scans, no sneak previews, no insistence on seeing all the cards and checking that they all live up to my very rigorous demands, no discarding a deck because of one card and certainly no online ordering. I still find that nothing can beat buying a deck from a shop. But these shops are disappearing.

I went into this shop recently and the tarot cabinet was completely empty. At the counter there were some men in suits discussing animatedly with the owner. Normally he and I chat but this day he was otherwise occupied. When I asked where the cards were he said they had all been sent back to the suppliers and in a couple of weeks they would be receiving some more. I left the men in suits discussing. On the way home I reflected that there was something ominous going on. I didn’t go again for a month, thinking I’d give them time to get decks back in stock, and when I returned, the whole stock, books too, was seriously depleted although there were a handful of decks in the cabinet. Maybe ten or twelve where normally there would have been about forty or fifty. A different person was serving. I could tell she wasn’t so familiar with where everything in the shop was. I asked if everything was alright. She said the shop was going through a few problems. I bought a copy of the Vision Quest Tarot (one of those Thoth-based decks I have been meaning to buy for a while) and left with the distinct sense that now this shop was about to close its doors for good too, which would mean my city doesn’t have a single New Age shop left. And it confirms what I have suspected for a while, that New Age shops are a thing of the past and the only option left for us is to order online and that there will be a time when that magic of going into a shop and trying to choose between decks, of taking a new deck home, stopping off at a café on the way home, breaking the cellophane and opening it up to gorge on that new deck smell and ambling home contentedly feeling that life has changed slightly, all this will be a thing of the past. And it is nonsense really but it sometimes feels that the decks I love the most are those I discovered in person and that nothing which arrived by post has ever enchanted me in quite the same way as one that I – how can I say it? –  unearthed myself. And I’m sure it is not just here. My home town – not just here –  has lost all its New Age shops, and I swear there used to be a few. I walked in on the closing down sale of one which, with hindsight, wasn’t the thrill I at first thought it was. I got decks like the Ukiyoe for a bargain but then a month later the shop was boarded up. In terms of here, I have a feeling that whenever I look at the Vision Quest Tarot it will feel heavy with meaning, like the last deck from the end of an era. It may well in fact be the last ever deck I buy in a New Age shop here. Who knows if or when they’ll be back?

About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
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16 Responses to Reflecting on the death throes of New Age Shops

  1. Sharyn/AJ says:

    This is the kind of post that should be in a magazine or newspaper…why don’t you see if you can get it published for a larger audience? Well said, well written.

  2. Le Fanu says:

    ~Thank you AJ. You’re so kind to write this. It was just a subject that had been niggling for while and sort of wrote itself!

  3. sapienza says:

    I agree with AJ. You write beautifully Le Fanu and you capture a sentiment that I share but could never express so well. The same thing is happening over here with our regular bookshops. We just don’t have the population to ensure enough demand, and because of the cost of getting things over here our prices are so high, and as a result many people now buy on-line. Sometimes I imagine a future without shops of any kind, but I don’t really want to think about that. Times certainly are changing, but isn’t it lovely to have those memories of finding a treasure in a shop and never forgetting how you happened upon it.

  4. Prince Le Normand says:

    I agree with the others. A beautiful post which really touches my own sentiments.

    I buy many decks online, but nothing beats the shop ‘experience’. When I bought my first deck, The Rohrig, I had no idea about what was out there or that I could even look online for tarots (I don’t think I was even online then). I went through the few sample cards in the shop and was struck by The Devil. Choosing that pack for me felt so special. I will always remember the magic in that day; the anticipation of going, the experience of choosing, and how wonderful those cards felt when I opened them with my friends in a place in London over lunch. That was the only deck I used for a couple of years.

    I went into an old shop the other day. You know the kind; books on the shelves, on the floor, lined up the walls. Even stacked higher than the seller on the counter. And amongst them I spied decks. There was that old one you wrote about recently – The Grand Eteilla. And The Roots of Asia. And more. All under £10. It’s those ‘finds’ which make it all the more exciting. I then happened upon the Celtic Wisdom Tarot somewhere else.

    I think it will be so sad if these shops completely disappear. There are some that are ridiculously priced. But there are the good ones, where you can pick up some real gems.

    PLN

    • Le Fanu says:

      I know. It makes me sad. I also remember when I was living far, far away and was missing my decks and went and bought one from a local shop – which really did only sell tarot – and I spent ages choosing it (pre-internet), with images in a catalogue and I’ll always remember the kindness and patience of the woman in the shop, waiting for me to get the right deck! I took it home and the whole day felt magical. I can always remember clearly the days on which I went into a shop and bought a deck. I always remember everything clearly, whether it was 6 months ago, 2 years, 10 years or 25 years ago. But maybe it’s just me feeling a general nostalgia for shops when, in a few years, everyone will be feeling this same nostalgia about all shops as they slowly disappear from our towns and everything will be delivered to our door. I miss that feeling of “I’ll call by the tarot shop later and see if they have any new deliveries”.

  5. woley says:

    I lost the little shop I used to go to some years ago. When Sherry closed the shop, I was able to buy some of the demo decks she had and she gave me her shop book on herbs. I bought my first tarot deck from her, a used edition of the Zerner Farber. She was great about special ordering things in and if I found a new deck she didn’t have, I would bring it up to show her. It isn’t just the purchasing, it’s the person and the ambiance of the shop. She spent a lot of time there and was always cleaning and switching displays. She used to give me the old US Games and Llewellyn catalogues, and she had little cups of polished gemstones so you could afford a small specimen of various things.Plus the shop smelled wonderful. Many, many times I have wished to see her and talk about decks, but can’t.

    It is Sherry herself I miss, and I haven’t seen her for five years but I’ll never forget her and her peaceful, lovely shop. When I was doing essays with the Dreaming in Color Luman deck and the specific card “Competition,” I went around to several places of business taking pictures of this card and I have one I took in her shop, next to some wonderful decks and a plant with a fairy figurine in it.

    You don’t get that from Amazon, alas.

  6. Ben Vee says:

    Really nice post. Alas these kinds of shops here in Australia have become simply a resource of income to people looking to exploit you and I and anyone else who thinks “New Age” is trendy. Here they are frightfully expensive, staffed by younger people who have no idea about any of the wares they sell and contain a level of insensitivity that just makes me turn around and walk straight out again. It’s a shame, but unfortunately today’s world is about capitalism and consumerism and people just aren’t interested.

  7. We have one major store in Vancouver, which is a mainstay, and I’m thankful for it. I’ll never forget going in there during the summer months of 1991. All those same feelings and memories that you described still flood back to me when I think of my teen years. Some of the happiest memories of my life at an integral part of my growing up.
    Its always great to read your posts at AT and now I know your blog, I’ll be following you here as well. Keep up the good work !

  8. Raven says:

    Hi.
    I have been reading this blog with interest, and in particular this post and it’s replies. I opened a pagan & witchcraft supply shop in Manchester in April 2011, that move was in response to the demise of New-Age retailers and the subsequent filling of that vaccum by the ‘out-for-your-money’ merchants who don’t really know or care or the people who come to them.
    I have been pleasantly surprised at how well Pagan Planet has evolved a good customer-base, and as a practicing witch & pagan of 30+ years, I do have some feel for my customer needs.
    I would like to see suppliers back on the high-street rather than the online e-shop business. I have not built a website yet and although I have a Facebook page, most of my customers have been by good old fashioned word by mouth.
    I do like to think that I am bringing paganism back to the highstreet where it belongs.

  9. Jezebel says:

    What an excellent read. I’m happy I stumbled across this thoughtful article. I feel the same way about picking out my tarot decks in person. Alas! Technology has its tentacles in the occult.

  10. jen says:

    I didn’t know you had a blog! I enjoyed reading this, especially because the same sad thing has happened in my area. There are still a few new age shops around, but I have to drive much further to get to one, only to be disappointed by a much smaller selection than they used to have.. Seems they survive longer in the major cities, or in touristy artistic type villages/towns. You are right – such a huge selection is at your fingertips online, but there is something so much more pleasurable about buying in person.

  11. oraclecache says:

    Where I used to live, the new age shops started coming in around the late ’70s, they blossomed in the ’80s, and took off full-blown during the ’90s as you have said.

    But a long time ago before the New Age hit the high streets, in the east end of London there was a second-hand bookshop in a vast old building with books & mysterious stuff piled right up to the high ceilings, and stacked on various table tops, and heaped on the floor. This emporium was presided over by an elderly man with a rickerty ladder. A wonderful place where I spent hours browsing around. Your post has brought it back to me. As much as I welcomed the public awareness & acceptance of esoterica that the ‘new age’ brought with it, there is much from before that has been lost or re-invented. Bittersweet progress.

    OC

    • Le Fanu says:

      And what I see now is that although a while back the big bookshops stocked deck, now fewer of them tend to do so because people unwrap and steal them. If they’re going to sell anything remotely esoteric they play it safe with angel decks & stuff.

  12. hiddentarot says:

    Really cool article, friend!

  13. Ly says:

    Stumbled upon this article/blog post while Google-hopping. I can’t help but echo one of the replies above: you write beautifully. It’s such a sad thing, what you’ve noticed happening – and not just with new age shops but I guess with a lot of other kinds of (specialty?) stores as well. The magic of stepping into an occult sore, that sometimes subtle, sometimes overpowering presence of so many things shown and hidden in so many nooks and crannies, waiting to be discovered or just to be felt – that has been replaced by the very detached, sit-back-and-relax-while-you-do-your-online-shopping: online stores. True, you can still browse through their catalogs, and they still try to retain that occult witchy feel (moody background images, sigil-esque icons, etc) but it’s such a distant experience on the whole (unlike the more “personalized” experience in an actual [non-franchise?] store).

    Guess that’s where progress is going. If that’s what people call it. I’m just thankful that my country’s just slightly backward enough that there’s still some interesting, themed{?)-stores left here.

    -Ly

    PS Sorry for the rambling, incoherent comment.

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