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?