I love to explore quirky and unorthodox places, so I was very excited when I first stumbled across Treadwell’s; a quaint independent bookshop tucked away on 33 Store Street in Bloomsbury, London. It’s a treasure trove of magic and mysticism; with shelves packed full of fascinating texts on folk art, mythology, culture, poetry, plays, Paganism, ancient religions, world religions, Wicca, magic, art, spirituality, plants, Druidry, history, folklore, paranormal investigation and much more.
Whatever esoteric traditions you believe in, you can be sure to find a book about it here. You can also feast your eyes on all the magical supplies on offer such as crystal balls, wands, candles, ceremonial oils, herbs, space and aura sprays, incense, statues, artwork and jewellery.
I’ve always been respectful of other religious, esoteric and spiritual beliefs and am fascinated by the different practices that exist. I took a tour around this mystical little shop and then sat down with the shop’s owner Christina Oakley Harrington to ask her some questions.
Where did the name Treadwell’s come from?
The name Treadwell’s is my maternal family name – the women in my family are feisty, strong and determined and have always encouraged learning. They’ve been educators, adventurers, explorers and I feel a bit of ancestor worship; I feel their presence behind me.
When and why did you decide to open Treadwell’s?
Treadwell’s opened on May Day 2003 in Covent Garden then moved here in 2011. I was a university lecturer in Medieval history, the history of religion and the history of magic, and I decided to do something different with the second half of my life. It’s a bookshop that has events and I like to think of it as a bridge between intellectual and cultural life and mystical, spiritual and esoteric culture.
Tell me a story about Treadwell’s that will surprise me…
Here’s a funny story for you…I once had a phone call from someone in the music industry who said there was a band that no one had ever heard of, who wanted to record their demo tape in a bookshop. They had been phoning bookshop after bookshop and no one would give them the time of day because bookshop owners tend to be quite precious about their books. We love our books here, but we also love meeting people and always encourage creative projects. So on a whim, I said: ‘go on then, but you have to stop playing at 11pm for our neighbours.’
They said to me: ‘it’s a tiny band, no one has ever heard of them – but word on the street is they’re going to be big!’
I replied: ‘Yeah whatever, that’s nice dear.’
So the band turned up, I left them to it with a student volunteer in charge then came back at 11:15pm and said: ‘I’m pulling the plug – it’s not worth the neighbours complaining.’
They were super polite and pleaded for one more song, so I let them have that last song.
They finally packed up and left at 11:45pm.
I never expected to hear anything from them again but their producer kept saying: ‘they’re going to be big!’
I responded: ‘It’s ok, we’d do it for anybody…’
Then I was told: ‘just remember the name – ‘Mumford & Sons!’
Six months later they were famous! They were sweet, polite, their music was lovely and they’d been turned down by about 15 bookshops before ours!
What sort of people visit Treadwell’s?
A broader walk of life than you’d expect. We’re open to everyone. A lot of people come who had an interest in occult related things in their teens, and now they’re in 40s/50s with a degree and a career and they’re revisiting ideas as a more mature person, through the lens of more life experience in a more measured way.
We really do get people from all walks of life – people in PR, law, marketing, social activists, lots of students, lots of creative people. We once had a writer come in who couldn’t finish editing his novel but said he felt calm here so asked if he could sit on our Browser’s sofa for a couple of hours every afternoon and work. Then we had an artist who came here each day to draw. We engage with people trying to do creative things and always encourage creativity. We make it a calm place that’s like a sanctuary; a place of mutual respect and companionship.
What’s the most expensive item you have on sale?
Usually it’s the old books – sometimes the originals that date back as early as the 1650s. People bring them in leather attache cases and we buy them. We’ve sold a couple of £2000 books, they were old magical instruction books where people could read about how to summon up spirits and angels.
Treadwell’s offers tarot readings downstairs – what can you tell me about tarot?
Tarot is really special to us because the tarot is Europe’s own divination system. Chinese has the ‘I Ching’ and Europe has the tarot cards.The fascinating thing is, a lot of symbolism in the tarot cards makes its way into renaissance art, architecture, mythology and in symbols embedded in our wider culture. There’s an overflow between renaissance art and symbols in the tarot deck as they come out of the same culture and there a lot of beautiful symbols. Tarot is a whole language in itself and it takes a lot of study to master it.
What makes a good tarot reading?
A good tarot reading is understanding the symbols. It’s a different skill to being a psychic, even though there is a bit of intuition, it’s about interpreting the symbols. A good tarot reader does not usually read full time for the first 10 years, because during that time you’re not good enough to take anyone’s money. If you’ve done 10,000 readings, you’ve got an understanding. If your clients are friends, they’ll give you feedback then you’ll learn and get better. Your intuition also gets better.
How do you find Treadwell’s tarot readers?
I get the best teachers in the UK and say: ‘what does it take to have you teach here?’ It’s different from a simple room hire, the readers at Treadwell’s are personally asked.
I anonymously go for tarot readings and a lot of it is through word of mouth. I’ve been involved in the esoteric world in London since 1990, so it’s always a case of somebody knows somebody who says they are good. I’ve studied tarot, so I know if they know the art. I don’t have the gift myself, but I know if a reading is outstandingly accurate. My guideline when I go to any tarot reader is to ask myself: ‘is this somebody I would send my sister to if she was in profound distress?’ I pick readers who are wise, positive, compassionate, sensible and sensitive. If someone is very accurate but not grounded as person and not centred, it can be distressing. The person has the ability to provide comfort and guidance or be damaging. We are immensely fortunate to have the four people here that we do. Those four are the ones who I have gone to and said: ‘would you work here?’ They are kind, thoughtful, sensitive and grounded people.
What’s the most popular thing people come in and ask for?
People often say: ‘I’m interested in this and I don’t know where to start.’ They ask about the things they don’t quite know and understand. We love that as it’s so honest and it gives us a chance to give a person a collection of things to choose from.
The best selling book is ‘The Book of English Magic‘ – a readable, engaging overview which has interviews, ideas for projects and things to do. When people look at back section and see herbs, oils, incense and don’t know what to do, the second biggest seller is: ‘Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs‘ – a book of folk spells that use herbs, plants and flowers. We always say to people, if you buy one thing, buy that as you can do 90% of the spells in your kitchen.
You sell ingredients for spells in Treadwell’s – tell me a bit about the history of spells…
Everyone did folks spells up until the 1970s. Most people have a grandmother who did. It was a great tradition of every religious persuasion and none. People who did folk spells in England up to that point usually rounded it off with the Lord’s prayer. Folk spells are done largely by Christians in English history and it’s not something that should be thought of as incompatible with Christianity. It’s about working with nature. Roses are for love and are full of love energy – that’s why we give them on Valentine’s day.
Bay leaves are full of radiant sun and success energy – that’s why they were used in triumphal crowns of Olympians in Ancient Greece. So if you want success and radiance – use bay leaves, eat them, put them in your tea or have them in a band around your neck. This isn’t that different from roses for love. It’s the idea that these plants have energies pulsing out of them and it’s just nature. A bit like cooking. It’s not about summoning up spirits or doing pacts with anything, it’s about folk beliefs about different plants and what they bring to the flavour of your life.
What’s the weirdest spell you’ve ever come across?
It was a spell that was popular in the 17th century. Shakespeare’s era was really the time for folk magic. This women’s only spell was to make someone fall in love with you.
You take a dove – kill it, take out its heart and then slit the heart open and put your fingernails and hair in the heart. Stitch it up and then…put it under your armpit until it begins to stink. Then burn it down into ash – then put that ash into persons food and make them eat it to make them fall in love. It’s sterile as the ash is sterile. It’s all about attraction – the heart, the bits of you, the bodily fluids – a psychic link with body fluid. There are lots more spells that are more vegetarian than that though! That’s one of the weirdest I’ve ever found.
Where do you get your products from?
All over the world. A guy sends us silverware and wooden boxes from India, a lovely white witch in England makes our magic wands, people hand make our incense in their kitchen in Leicestershire, our Aura sprays and magical oils are made by a shaman who is a Cambridge trained chemist. We have two incense makers from Seattle, and the person who prints our rare historical tarot card reproductions lives in Paris. Also a lot of the decor you see in the shop are actually presents from people. People bring us things from around the world, paint for us, or they say: ‘I’m cleaning out my flat and I’ve had this since 1985 but my new husband doesn’t like it.’
Lots of people ask for spells – as we know about folk magic here. We don’t do the spells for them, we just point them to the ingredients and some simple instructions. We also remind them that most ingredients for English traditional folk spells (such as good luck, love, more energy) can all be done with ingredients in kitchen cupboard and things around the home. We do have ingredients though; candles, herbs, essential oils, but they are not necessary – all the ingredients for self-help English folk magic are kitchen ingredients and can be done for under £2.
How many people can read crystal balls?
Very few people have ‘the sight’ – that’s when you have the ability to see things in a crystal ball. You go in a dark room after midnight, put a candle by your crystal ball and a black cloth all around it, then you look into it and see if you see anything. If you have ‘the sight’, it will cloud over and they you will see scenes of things happening. It’s a very small number of people who have this skill, and the ones I’ve met have not had it consistently.
What advice would you give people coming to Treadwell’s and wondering what to buy?
The biggest piece of advice is say hello to the person on the till. We don’t intrude but all you have to do is tell us. ‘I don’t know what I’m looking for/I’ve never been before.’ We all love talking about our subjects and will get out books for you to read.
What’s your favourite thing about working in the shop?
My favourite thing about working here is the people I meet. We share interesting ideas and everyday I come to work, I meet people who teach me something new.
Treadwell’s is without doubt the friendliest bookshop in London. The staff are warm and welcoming and love to hear your stories as much as tell you their own. I couldn’t leave without buying something, so decided to purchase two books, a necklace and one of their Flying Salamander Space & Aura sprays called ‘prosperity’. I was instructed to spray it around me to encourage ‘wealth, prosperity, business success and justice.’ I joked in the shop that I hope I find some money on the floor on the way home, then something really surreal happened. As I walked towards Goodge Street tube station, someone brushed past me and a £5 note fell from their bag and next to my feet. I turned round to hand it back to them but they’d already disappeared into the underground. Coincidence or not, it certainly put a smile on my face.
Treadwell’s is open seven days a week and has a fantastic online shop too. For those who want to learn more, take a look at Treadwell’s in-store lectures series on topics related to mysticism, pagan spirituality and the occult. There are also practical workshops on tarot reading, perfume making, herbal magic, folk magic, incense making and much more.
I love the mystery and excitement of this unique London bookshop; you never know what you’re going to find – it’s a place that will surprise you and teach you something new every time you visit. I can’t wait to go back…
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