We don't usually associate Covent Garden with witchcraft, paganism, druids or the occult. But on Tavistock Street, sandwiched between the house where Thomas DeQuincey wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater and one a few doors down in which Dickens lived, a kind of miracle in the independent book trade is taking place. In a time when small bookshops regularly fall to the internet, and those still standing struggle to stay alive, Treadwell's, a staunchly old-style establishment, dedicated to browsing and specialising in occult, magic and pagan literature, is doing remarkably well. Its success may have something to do with the steady popularity of "all things occultly marvellous", in Mircea Eliade's phrase, that's been part of mainstream consumerism since the New Age boom of the late 1980s. But there's something more.
Although you'll find the usual magical bric-a-brac there – wands, voodoo potions, tarot cards and incense – what sets Treadwell's apart from other occult shops is that, since it opened in 2003, it's become a centre where people from different backgrounds with an interest in paganism and related subjects can meet and exchange ideas. With the recent academic interest in the occult – witness the historian Ronald Hutton's work on modern witchcraft and paganism – this makes for an engaging crew. Regulars at Treadwell's are as apt to be working on a doctorate as they are on a solstice ritual, or invoking a thesis subject as much as a guardian angel. The nucleus of this pagan salon, which draws in sceptical professors and devout practitioners alike, is Treadwell's guiding spirit, Christina Oakley Harrington.
"I didn't always want to start a bookstore," she told me, as we sat in the shop on a busy afternoon. "Although I've always been an obsessive reader, it was more about having a place where ideas could come together, where people interested in ideas could meet, where they could exchange and discuss them. So when we got the place it was important that it had a space for that."
Oakley Harrington's background is as unusual as the material she stocks. "I was brought up in various Third World countries," she told me, " because my parents were dedicated to Third World economic development, and my mother was a kind of amateur anthropologist. We moved around a lot. Burma, then Chile under Pinochet. The first religious ceremony I remember attending was a girl's initiation rites, in Northern Liberia, when I was about five, before I had ever been in a church. I didn't come to England until I was 15, then my parents decided that I needed to go to an American high school – my dad's English, mum's American. So they sent me where there were really strange tribes, like football teams, cheerleaders and computer geeks. Then I went off to university and stumbled through that, studying international politics and history, but I spent all my time reading Latin and medieval poetry, neglecting Cold War strategies. After that I tried a corporate job for a few years."
But where did paganism come in? "Well, I had always had this 'tree thing', Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass. I was a failed Buddhist. I liked to drink and smoke and enjoyed sex too much for that, and a friend suggested I read a book on paganism. I did and thought 'Oh God, this is what I am!' Then I relocated to England, did a PhD and was a university lecturer in medieval history for 10 years."
This academic background sets the tone for much of what happens at Treadwell's. Aside from providing an advisory service for collectors and passing such rare gems as a signed first edition (with dust jacket) of High Magic's Aid, a practically unobtainable item by Gerald Gardner, the grandfather of modern witchcraft, into appreciative hands – "A wonderfully dreadful novel, so bad its adorable," she tells me – Christina keeps her eye on developments in "occult academia" and invites scholars to speak at the salon. For her, the occult has been relegated to a cultural backwater for too long. She herself has given talks on Leonora Carrington, a surrealist painter steeped in alchemy, and on the women in the Golden Dawn, the pre-eminent magical society of the 1890s, which included W B Yeats's unrequited love, Maude Gonne, the actress and one-time mistress of Bernard Shaw, Florence Farr, Moina Bergson, sister of the philosopher, Henri Bergson, and Anne Horniman, who financed the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
"People often forget when you talk about occult or esoteric subjects that, for example, the Surrealists and Symbolists were deep into it, that many figures in literature and the arts were, and that it has a role to play in mainstream western culture."
As do occult bookshops. In the early 19th century, not far from Treadwell's, John Denley's occult bookshop was a favourite of writers such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose Rosicrucian novel Zanoni is a compendium of esoteric lore. Yeats got his magical fix from Watkins off Charing Cross Road, and in Paris in the fin-de-siècle, Edmond Bailly's occult shop catered to the likes of J K Huysmans, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Erik Satie and Debussy. So Treadwell's is in some distinguished company.
Yet the academic atmosphere is a distinctly new element in the magical world. Twenty years ago, the idea of doing research on an occult subject would practically guarantee you'd be unemployed. Today that's changed and, on a visit to Treadwell's, you'll hear names like Baudrillard, Deleuze, Bataille and Foucault dropped as often as that of Aleister Crowley. It's a post-modern, post-Crowley generation here, and the results can be surprising. One of Christina's speakers was honoured with a mention in Private Eye 's "Pseuds Corner". It noted Dr Stephen Alexander's lecture series on "Zoophilia", which, in a talk on Eve's encounter with the serpent and the "transhuman future", mooted the question of "sexual congress with snakes". Less challenging perhaps were the lectures by Cyril Edwards, a Germanist and respected translator of Parsifal, who is also "the world expert on elves ". "He's a wonderfully engaging man," Christina said, " and he's spoken here a few times and the place was packed to the rafters." All Treadwell's visitors aren't so highbrow, though. Kelly Osbourne, whose dad has his own occult interests, pegged the shop as her favourite in some celebrity magazine. The boost was lost on Christina. "I was here when she came in but I had no idea who she was."
When I asked Christina to choose some books she felt were significant, she hesitated, then asked if she could get back to me. But a few minutes later she pulled a copy of Douglas Hill's The Supernatural, published in the 1970s, off the shelf, then lovingly handed me a bound edition of the encyclopedia Man, Myth and Magic. "This is what made me who I am today!" she confessed. Having cut my own occult teeth on Crowley, Israel Regardie, Francis King and Colin Wilson, I was happy to see this old school perk her up. Scholars should be applauded for pulling occultism out of the intellectual rubbish bin, but their cautious texts sometimes lack the sheer fun and readability of the earlier popular books. And, in throwing the academic spotlight on magic, one wonders if, to mix metaphors, it's a case of scraping the bottom of the barrel.
"Well," Christina suggests, "magic is the new gender. We've done gender. We've done books. We've done reading. Before it was 'the role of the book in Tudor England'. Now it will be 'the role of magic in Tudor England'. And that's great. It's wonderful when you have a John Dee scholar [Dee was astrologer to Queen Elizabeth] meeting a chap who practices Dee's magic, and exchanging email addresses. I get a real charge from something like that."
Rightly so. It seems confirmation of her mission statement when starting the shop. "To provide a place for people who have a spiritual, or occult, or pagan interest, but who don't want to thrown their brain out the door. A place that can link the pagan and occult world to the world of literature, art, and philosophy. To the thinking world." *
Spirit guides: Six recommendations from Treadwell's shelves
The Occult Mind by Chris Lehrich
A riveting and serious philosophical re-evaluation of the intellectual history of the occult in the West
Wicca by Vivianne Crowley
A Jungian slant on Wicca's initiatory rituals and beliefs – the author is a longstanding Wiccan priestess who is also a psychologist
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Unashamed, celebratory, tender: the 150-year-old work that expresses modern pagan nature religion better than any other
The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton
A glorious, loving history of modern witchcraft and an instant classic, full of surprising and enchanting facts and analysis
The Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe
Probably the most important work published in 400 years on the folk custom, folk magic and lore of herbs, trees and plants
The Book of Abramelin: a new translation, Abraham of Worms
A mystical, medieval, magical adventure tale and magical grimoire. Written by a Jewish German mage, circa 1400Reuse content