The Spirit Trade 

New Age stores boom as customers come up empty in the Bible Belt

New Age stores boom as customers come up empty in the Bible Belt

By Maria Browning

Cover illustration by Marleen De Waele-De Bock ♦ Photos by Eric England

They call themselves by a variety of names: metaphysical stores, occult shops, New Age or visionary markets. Hundreds of them have popped up all over the country in the past 10 years, tucked away in old houses and reincarnated strip malls.

A few are slick enterprises with gleaming fixtures and high-concept merchandising, but most are small and homey, like the incense-drenched, tchotchke-filled living room of a mildly eccentric friend. They are nearly always "mom-and-pop" operations, with the proprietor on site welcoming every customer. A few of the stores have a particular focus, usually Pagan/Wiccan, but most pride themselves on offering a broad range of spiritual books and goods, from Buddhist tomes to memoirs of alien abduction.

According to Patricia Bush, executive director of the Coalition of Visionary Resources (COVR), a national trade association of New Age vendors and retailers, these owner-operated spiritual bazaars are the second-fastest-growing segment of the $45 billion-a-year alternative culture industry, right behind the mammoth "health and wellness" market. In spite of the modest nature of the individual shops, the stores as a group constitute a large, organized commercial entity, complete with annual industry conventions and trade rags such as New Age Retailer.

Nashville has a half-dozen such stores, including grand dame Magical Journey, which has been in business on Louise Avenue, near Elliston Place, since 1988. It's remarkable that these little shops manage to survive and thrive in a city with such an aggressively Christian culture, where even mainstream independent bookstores are an endangered species. It takes more than Gothed-out teens and graying remnants of the '60s to keep so many businesses going. Clearly, a lot of Nashvillians are dropping their dollars in the metaphysical marketplace, in search of spiritual education and comfort that they can't get or choose not to seek from conventional sources.

Recently, as I sat on the porch of Tangled Moon in Lebanon chatting with owner Chip Flippin, all the customers who passed by were suburban mothers with their kids in tow. Flippin's shop is small and eclectic, with an emphasis on Eastern and Pagan traditions. The families seemed perfectly comfortable among the pentagrams and goddess figures. The kids pawed through the healing stones and ogled the Hindu statuary ("Cool!"), while the women browsed the books and jewelry. One little boy got himself a crystal-tipped journey staff—a yard-long ritual scepter similar to a Native American talking stick. He showed it off with the same pride my brothers used to have for their newest Hot Wheels.

This kind of curiosity and pleasure in spiritual exploration is just what Flippin hoped to nurture when he chucked his corporate job in New York the day after 9/11 and returned permanently to his native Tennessee to create a "cultural understanding center." Flippin, a slender, elegant man who habitually dresses in white from head to toe, sees his enterprise primarily as a peaceful means of combating religious intolerance and the violence it fosters.

"[After 9/11] I just wanted to rent a giant megaphone and drive around the country telling people, 'Osama bin Laden is to Islam what Jerry Falwell is to Christianity!' " Instead he set up shop across the street from the public library and let people find him. He has been pleasantly surprised by the acceptance he has received, and by the variety of people who visit his store.

"I've been in business almost three years. Even with the marketing background I come from, I will never find a method to the madness. There is no niche category...I get everything in here."

Other shop owners I spoke with had the same observation. Their customer base is not the fringe crowd you might expect. Tish Owen at The Goddess and the Moon says her customers are ethnically diverse and "probably 80 percent non-Pagan." Her Berry Hill shop sees South Nashville Latinos, African American women from Edgehill, and suburbanites who routinely come in to wait out rush hour. Willie Jones, owner of Magical Journey, is quick to point out that the backbone of his business is not students from nearby Vanderbilt, but the nurses and staff from the neighboring hospitals and medical offices.

"[They have] a hard job, there's a lot of negative energy," he says. "People come in on their lunch hour, and say, 'I just came in to feel good.' "

The prospect of feeling good, or at least feeling better, seems to be what draws in many customers, which suggests that there is much more than shopping going on in these little shoestring businesses. Consumer allure alone certainly cannot explain their success; the incense, candles and books can be found cheaper elsewhere, and even the most esoteric items are readily available online.

"It's not our merchandise we're really selling," says Jones. "It's our environment. It's to walk in and feel like you're with some good people who are very spiritual and accept you for who you are."

If you ask the merchants to describe the nature of what they do, talk quickly turns to what the Christian world would call a mission of service: helping people in a state of crisis who come looking for comfort and answers.

Katherine King, who co-owns Galactic Gateways with her husband Ackbar, finds that people are drawn to the atmosphere of openness they try to create in their Nolensville Road store. It's very common for individuals to come in who just need to share a problem or a troubling experience. King takes it as a matter of course. She listens to tales of failed relationships and UFO encounters with the same acceptance and understanding. "You look at how much time you have.... Sometimes the universe just opens up to where you have an hour you can talk with a customer."

Sharon, a 34-year-old African American woman who has been frequenting New Age shops since her college days, says of her visits to Galactic Gateways, "I go there to be around a positive influence.... In any store they might see that you're looking for something. The difference in these stores is that what you're searching for is not a tangible thing.... Maybe there's something on your mind that you're trying really hard to ignore. [The people working there] will pick up on it.... It's one of the few places you can go where there's no judgment on you. They're never going to tear you down, or force something on you."

Tarot and other forms of intuitive readings, as well as massage and energy work such as Reiki, are standard offerings at most stores and form an important part of the business. Tish Owen began giving tarot readings 14 years ago in a storefront on Second Avenue. She has seen an evolution in local attitudes in recent years, which she credits with enlarging her clientele. "People are absolutely more accepting," she says. "It's still a very woman-heavy demographic, but it's a broad range of women. It runs the entire gamut of society." Owen feels that a growing awareness of spiritual need sends people her way. "I'm seeing more spiritual angst. People are more concerned with their spiritual path in recent years. They're thinking about how to live better—how do they live closer to God?"

Owen works six days a week in her present store, not for the money—"I could make more money working at Sears selling shoes," she says—but because she feels an obligation to be available "in case somebody needs me." She's happy to entertain people with her readings if that's what they want; in fact, she relies on party and convention business for much of her income. But she is also aware that she is sometimes the frontline of comfort and counsel for troubled people who don't want to turn to more conventional help. "I had one guy who came in and said, 'This is where you come when all hope is gone,' " she says with a bittersweet smile. "So many people are searching for a spiritual connection.... I feel a need to help them."

Sharon, who initially wandered into the shops just looking for incense, says she felt drawn to return for just such a sense of spiritual connection. She felt stifled by the attitudes in the mainstream church in which she grew up. "In the traditional church, you are not allowed to tap into the wider spiritual realms.... Everything is good or evil.... [When I tried to question things,] I was told, 'Just leave that alone.' " She felt that there was little in the way of acceptance or comfort for the inner conflicts and confusion we all feel. "There was no room for me.... If I hadn't had [the New Age] perspective, I would have lost touch with my authentic self. If the stores hadn't been there, I would have been lost."

Even for those not in extremis, the stores seem to serve as a help for life's transitions, as well as a ready source of knowledge of myriad traditions. Willie Jones says, "Our typical customer is a woman between 30 and 50 who has raised her kids, done everything she was supposed to do. Now she wants to know 'Who am I? What can I be? Something's missing, what is it?' "

Jones, like all the merchants, is emphatic that he is not interested in telling people what to believe, but in assisting them to find that out for themselves. "We can help translate concepts to someone using their own terminology to build bridges between the paths," he says.

Visionary retailers are only doctrinaire about one thing: that one spiritual path is never better than another. There is no right and wrong in matters of belief. That hang-up belongs to religion, of which there is a general distrust. "We have evolved beyond the concept of religion," says Jones. "I see religion as man-made. Spirituality is God-made."

The spiritual exchange taking place may be genuine, but the fact remains that these stores are commercial enterprises, designed to move merchandise and generate money. Even Flippin, who hopes his store will eventually become a nonprofit fundraiser for local charities, acknowledges that the shop must be successful for that to happen; and there's every reason to expect that it will be, since Tangled Moon and her Nashville sisters are bound to get swept along in the marketing rush that has holistic goods and services in increasing demand everywhere from Kmart to Kroger. But there doesn't seem to be much worry about being "Wal-Marted" out of business, since big box retailers and Internet sellers can't touch the personal relationships that the small stores have with their clientele.

It's hard to know whether the marketing of alternative culture, including its freeform spirituality, is fueling the public's interest in it, or the other way around. Patricia Bush believes that the gigantic wellness market, with its promotion of yoga, Ayurveda and the like, is the gateway for many people to be introduced to the idea of new spiritual possibilities. The mind-body approach to health leads to a greater openness to spiritual ideas. "It's being absorbed piecemeal into the mainstream culture," she says.

That explanation may hold in regions of the country that are not as God-haunted as the South, but in these parts few people need a yoga instructor to suggest that they attend to the state of their souls. The primacy of faith is mainstream culture around here. The real question is why—in this town of more than 600 churches, where three of the top 10 employers are Christian publishers, and the conservative God squad has the power to deny us everything from a gay rights ordinance to a beer on Sunday morning—are so many Nashvillians seeking spiritual guidance over the New Age shop counter?

The cynical answer is that this is just another consumer fad: Teenagers see episodes of Charmed and want to play witch; young adults, perennially bored and disappointed with love and work, shop for something to make them feel special; and menopausal women, as everyone knows, will try anything to get themselves through the crazy years.

You can only believe that's true if you assume, as many people do, that visionary culture is empty; that without doctrine or some sort of authority, all the rituals, lingo and objets are nothing more than camouflage for self-absorption and infantile wishful thinking. In other words, people are just being sold a load of bull that makes them feel good about themselves; which is, of course, exactly the same charge the atheist/agnostic cohort makes against mainstream religion.

In truth, if you spend time talking to people like Chip Flippin and Katharine King, it's clear that they have values and moral guideposts that are as well defined as any you're likely to get from the pulpit on Sunday morning: treat people with respect and love, never impose your beliefs on others, take responsibility for your life, harm no one.

Most everybody would claim to share those values, but tolerance and respect are actually in short supply, especially where conservative Christianity holds sway. Most of the people I talked to for this story grew up with conventional faith, but felt compelled to search outside it, at least in part because of the judgment and exclusion they found there.

Bart James, a 24-year-old who went to work at Galactic Gateways after meeting Katherine and Ackbar at one of their New Age expos, says, "I grew up in a small town in Alabama; everybody was Baptist or Methodist. There's a lot that goes on in the religion that creates a lot of guilt and fear and doubt." He emphasizes that he respects Christian principles, but is put off by the evangelical mission to win converts. "It's like a head count, all these people trying to get saved...there's all this fear being generated by mass religion."

It's important not to underestimate the degree of social sanction that these spiritual seekers have to contend with. In our increasingly polarized and belligerent country, publicly espousing unconventional religious views has a high price tag, and that's particularly true in the Bible Belt. Although none of the stores has had to contend with serious harassment, hostility toward the visionary culture is something everyone is aware of. Sharon and one other woman interviewed for this story did not want their last names used, and one of the merchants made a point of asking not to be identified as a Wiccan. Sara, a lovely woman who read the tarot for me at Magical Journey, called me up the next day to ask that I not print her full name, for fear that it would damage her family's business.

People in the visionary culture tend to see their spiritual journey in intensely personal terms. Primary value is placed on the individual's subjective experience of God. Combine that with the fraught nature of defying religious orthodoxy, and therein lies the clue as to why this culture is growing via the marketplace instead of in houses of worship or private homes.

For a nation of consumers, the marketplace is a zone of safety. We enter and leave it anonymously. From infancy we are encouraged to want, get and keep as much stuff as possible. Shopping is practically a civic duty in this country and has universal approval, as long as you stay out of the porn shops.

Moreover, when we're spending money, we know who we are. When wandering into unknown territory, putting on the role of consumer is like donning protective gear: you're not a supplicant, you're a customer, and the customer is always right. Clergy, academics and other established guides of the spirit, from every tradition, carry institutional authority that you must accept and contend with if you want their help. The shopkeeper and tarot reader have no authority whatsoever. They will never ask for more than you are willing to give.

So the commercial context performs a double function: it sublimates the scary act of questioning religious authority, and at the same time, it gives the individual complete control over the encounter. As Sharon says, "A store is right there for anybody to come into; there's no secrecy about it. It does make it nonthreatening, because you're just walking into a store.... You decide what kind of experience you're going to have, not the other way around."

Theresa, a firefighter in her 40s who is a practicing witch, echoes the same feelings when thinking about her early spiritual exploration. She began learning about earth-centered paths via the stores because "in the beginning, I would not even consider going to a group event, for lots of reasons, for fear of being 'found out' or ridiculed. Plus, I just wanted to do it my way."

It will be interesting to see how this cultural and commercial phenomenon plays out in the coming years, given the global religious tensions that seem to grow more brutal all the time. The New Age crowd is hopeful that all this hatred is just the last gasp of the unenlightened. They think a worldwide awakening to love and tolerance is just around the corner, and maybe they're right. Certainly, it's hard to imagine that little boy happily wandering around Tangled Moon ever espousing the kind of religious bigotry that plagues us now. On the other hand, if a whole generation grows up determined to be the shaman with the journey staff, we could be right back at square one.

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