Spirits Up!

What's Behind the Sudden Surge in Spirituality?

Sarah Michelle Gellar's decision to quit Buffy after her contract expired drew waves of wistful mourners, online petitions, and office-cooler whimpers—and rightfully so. But news of her swan song has goosed the city's spiritual sales. Crystals, candles, gemstones, and other metaphysical items popularized by the vamp-slaying sista have been selling more strongly in recent months, and to more neophyte customers, than before the show's unplugging, according to Angela Babekov, owner-operator of the two-year-old Aurora, located a block below Houston on Clinton Street. Angela opened the one-room boutique after leaving her seven-year tenure as a vice president in assets management at CIBC Oppenheimer.

"Things change," she says. "I was working in the twin towers until 2000, right before the collapse. I'd met a spiritual teacher who encouraged me to pursue activities beyond sheer moneymaking, so I switched professions"—and names. Angela became "OsSiya"—"the 'saved one,' " she says. "My adviser named me that, and a friend in real estate said, 'If you can get a space in the Lower East Side, take it, because the area is religiously diverse—and cheap—and has an eclectic range of small businesses.' " With crystals dangling in the window, ocean sounds splashing from speakers, and aromatics coursing through the air, Aurora stands out among the congested side street's bars, delis, cafés, and cell phone huts.

The catch? Employees don't get paid. Clerks, some of them skin-care consultants and medical professionals, volunteer days off and trade shifts when they feel like it. "They work it out among themselves," says OsSiya, who entrusts employees with scheduling autonomy due to their "therapeutic relationships with customers, asking and caring about their daily lives."

Aurora's bestselling items, 60 hot-pink, purple, and blue paperbacks by Bulgarian spiritual writer Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov, line narrow shelves beside the entrance. "Aïvanhov says that our thoughts are like our children," comments a regular customer, Joe, relaxing beside OsSiya. "If you don't want your children to be unruly or angry, why would you want your thoughts to be? So I've been treating my mind as I would my firstborn, and I don't need antidepressants like I did when I moved to New York City."

The Lower East Side's Enchantments, a Wiccan store on East 9th Street, has been brewing storms in that location for 20 years. Joe Zuchowski, a cashier and high Wicca priest at the store, credits wartime, not just prime time, with the recent boom in spirituality. "After 9-11," he says, "there was a major hike in attendance at churches, and new customers began asking about crystals. One guy came in the day after he was diagnosed with AIDS, and asked for a cure. You can't cure AIDS, I told him. I can teach you meditation techniques through crystals—holding them and chanting—and I can teach you coping mechanisms through herbal remedies and prayer classes, and provide hotline numbers, but self-empowerment is up to you."

"Most people come in for love potions, and we'll blend oils for them—Great Sex, which smells like cherries and chocolate, and Stay at Home, which helps to prevent infidelity—but we don't provide ready-made miracles," agrees Ammo O'Day-Liebman, a clerk wearing full-body tattoos under her denim overalls and tank top. Ammo, who changed her name from Christina, brings down-to-earth creativity to Enchantments. With Ammo's body art, Joe's gnarly beard, jagged swords lining wood-paneled walls, herb-filled jars stacked on ceiling-high shelves, and handmade incense holders splayed across cabinets, Enchantments carries a certain backwoods charm.

It's different in the far daintier, slightly cheerier, smaller, and decoratively more matter-of-fact Morgana's Chamber. Take two steps inside Morgana's, on West 10th Street, and you'll find three mellow cats lying at leisure on shelves. Add Bo to the mix—an approachable clerk and laid-back art-school student who worked at Enchantments before moving to Morgana's—and you've got the friendliest Wicca shop in the West Village. It offers "Witch Workshops" that teach herb, candle, and cauldron magick, as well as tarot classes and lectures by popular pagan writers, including Lexa Roséan, whose bestselling Zodiac Spells explains Wiccan practices through the lens of astrology. "Classes take place in our small back room," says Morgana. "I actually demonstrate techniques: carving candles, cleansing them, and decorating them with bright glitter before then charging them with intentions and letting participants take them home."

"I'll suggest rocks, crystals, and essential oils to customers," says Bo, "but many people come in who actually need to see psychiatrists, and I'll tell them that. Other people come with the impression that we're going to turn you into a witch by looking at you or that we're scamming your soul or something. Charmed [the WB's spiritual series] is hilarious: Characters run around flapping their tits and pass it off as spirituality like ours, but witchcraft is about nurturing mind-body relationships through potent, fun spiritual items and group meetings."

Christopher Street's 13-year-old Stick, Stone & Bone is light on Wicca but heavy on oils. New Age books, Native American artifacts, and ambient music albums sell affordably out of handwoven baskets; pocket-sized crystals, often exchanged between lovers to signify emotional union, sell best. "There's been a revival in the city's cultural awareness over the past few years," says one of the store's owners. "Shows like Buffy, even Oprah, have been energizing sales. Anytime Oprah does episodes on 'smudging,' the Native American process of burning sage, we sell tons of sage. People have also been expressing interest in Celtic, Egyptian, and Mayan items."

If you don't know Celtic culture from Celtic Pride, the 1996 basketball movie featuring Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern, you can research the difference at East West Books, the mecca of metaphysical literature. Owned by the Himalayan Institute and located on lower Fifth Avenue, it's been serving spiritually savvy customers and interested innocents for 25 years. With dream-analysis books, nutrition magazines, and Eastern-medicine journals alphabetized along carpeted aisles, the shop attempts to "link Eastern philosophy with science," says Larice, a clerk. "Buddhist philosophy books sell best," he explains.

"I'm changing lifestyles," comments a regular customer, thin, twentysomething, and breathing around, possibly despite, an enormous metal nose-ring weighing her down even as spirituality lifts her up. "I've been browsing here for the past week, reimagining my perspective on my body's nutrition. I'm taking much more care of my body now by eating organic foods and knowing their sources, which changes everything: the way I think, the way I sweat—the way I shit."


Aurora, 43 Clinton Street, 212-477-0101, aurora-usa.net. Open Tuesday through Saturday noon to 8 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m. East West Books, 78 Fifth Avenue, 212-243-5994. Open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Enchantments, 341 East 9th Street, 212-228-4394. Open Monday through Saturday 12:30 to 8:30 p.m., Sunday 1 to 7:30 p.m. Morgana's Chamber, 242 West 10th Street, 212-243-3415, members.tripod.com/morganaschamber. Open Tuesday through Friday 2 to 8 p.m., Saturday 1 to 8 p.m., Sunday 1 to 6 p.m. Stick, Stone & Bone, 111 Christopher Street, 212-807-7024. Open Sunday through Thursday noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to midnight.


Research assistance: Eva Yaa Asantewaa and Fiona Tyson

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