From Witch City to Ghost Town

Patrick Dougherty, Sticksworks, Salem, Massachusetts

After the tourists leave, Salem’s witch shops try to make ends meet

(This feature article was originally written for a class. The names of people and places have been changed by request–I have no desire to piss off a witch!)

It’s the beginning of November, and Essex Street stands abandoned.

Three weeks ago, the pedestrian mall in downtown Salem was so crowded, it seemed half the world had converged on a single spot. The street’s paving bricks were obscured by the crush. Its t-shirt carts nearly foundered amid a flood of goths, New Agers, and drag queens. Like a black-and-orange beacon, the approach of Halloween had drawn together hundreds of refugees from the fringes of society. Their houses were in Newton, Beverly, or a dozen other suburbs scattered across the country. But during the month of October, Salem was their home.

Essex Street, Salem Massachusetts

This sudden swell in Salem’s population has occurred every year since at least the 1970s. What started as a modest bit of witch tourism quickly became a fall-themed, scream-infused, pumpkin-scented Halloween extravaganza. Sensing a potential boon, tourism officials in Salem wasted no time in capitalizing on the public’s interest in their otherwise quiet town. They advertised. They printed pamphlets. They hung orange banners from every light post and organized lavish costume balls. Thanks in part to their efforts, tourism is now the backbone of Salem’s economy.

October in Salem is raucous and more than a little cheesy, but most residents are willing to tolerate it because of the financial benefits it provides. That’s not to say they aren’t irked by the commercialism. One group in particular has mixed feelings about tourist season and the flippant attitude toward witchcraft that it encourages: Salem’s modern-day witch community.

Inside Morgana, one of several witchcraft stores on Essex Street, a 22-year-old witch named Katie breathes a sigh of relief. Now that Halloween is over, she no longer has to wear a costume or chaperone hordes of visitors through the shop’s narrow aisles. She sits comfortably behind the counter, fussing with her bleach-blonde hair as a few locals browse Morgana’s stock of hand-crafted poppets.

“We know most people who come in here during October don’t believe in witchcraft,” she says. “We know they don’t respect it. We accept that, but it’s still annoying.”

Katie has been a practicing witch since before she can remember. A former Montessori student, she grew up saying prayers to trees and worshiping nature deities as well as the Christian God. It wasn’t until high school that she discovered a name for her beliefs. Now a passionate neo-Pagan, she can’t help but squirm when she sees tourists cavort along Essex in tawdry witch outfits.

It’s basically religious appropriation,” she says.

“We don’t like the tourism thing,” she adds, in case that wasn’t clear already.

Incense

Angela, who works a few buildings down at Elysium, is more ambivalent. A petite redhead with a voice like the tinkling of glass, she explains her mixed feelings while helping a customer book an appointment to speak to a medium. “It’s obviously good for the economy of the town,” she says, “but it’s really gimmicky. I can put up with it only because it’s for such a short time.”

It’s easy to see why Angela prefers Salem’s post-Halloween atmosphere. Now, at the beginning of November, her shop is nearly silent. There’s no New Age music, no brash banter between employees, and all psychic readings take place in a separate, sound-proof room. When two women enter in search of an aura photograph, they lower their voices, as if to avoid disturbing the shop’s cultivated placidity. It’s remarkable how peaceful Elysium is. What’s even more remarkable, Angela says, is how loud and uncomfortable it becomes when the tourists are in town.

When asked, neither Katie nor Angela says she would do away with tourist season entirely. Both Morgana and Elysium make the majority of their money around Halloween, when out-of-town visitors shuffle through the shops in search of witch-themed goods. It’s unlikely that any witch store in Salem would remain solvent without that October sales boost. Indeed, none of their proprietors seem eager to try.

“What’s great about October is, you don’t have to do anything,” says Patricia, owner of The Enchantress, another Essex Street establishment. Her store has been open just over a year, and while she describes their off-season as “great” compared to other stores she’s managed, there’s no question that she has to work harder after the tourists leave.

“Our strategy is to promote other local businesses,” she explains. “Last year, we had a Christmas window display featuring hand-made Krampus ornaments from another store in town. Whenever someone asked about the ornaments, we’d direct them to that store. That kind of thing goes on a lot around here. We all work together to support each other when business is slow.”

Other witch shops take different approaches to the off-season. One of Katie’s duties is posting to Morgana’s Facebook page every morning. When the weather’s good, she or one of her co-workers stands outside and distributes fliers. When the weather’s bad, she says, there’s “no point.”

“We have days in the winter where no one comes in for hours,” she says. “When it’s snowing or freezing out, we’re lucky to make $500 a day.

Over at Elysium, Angela prefers a more New Age method of attracting customers. Every morning when she comes to work, she waters the plants, cleans the store, and lights some incense. The positive chi this creates draws people in, she says, “like moths to a flame.” When asked just how many moths wander in after Halloween, she smiles and admits: “Not so many.”

 

Dragonsblood tree

That’s not to say that Salem’s witch shops have no consistent client base. Many of them are frequented by locals—other witches and wizards who moved to Salem to live among like-minded neighbors. They buy dried flowers from The Enchantress, dragonsblood from Morgana, and magic candles from Elysium. It’s these transactions, which are more about community and less about Halloween-related curiosity, that give the witch shops of Essex their true character. That’s the real reason the witches prefer the off-season: It’s more authentic.

“Plus I don’t have to wear the costume,” Katie says, with a long-suffering sigh. “That stupid corset kills me.”

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