Watkins Books: A Spell of Black Magic
In-store tarot readings, Aleister Crowley and mysteriously vanishing books. Who would expect anything less from London’s oldest occult bookstore?
Tucked away on a side street near Leicester Square, Watkins Books’ strange history is disguised by the same respectable green-fronted exterior as its neighbours. Step inside, however, and you’ll find yourself browsing beside patrons looking for books on shamanism, Jung’s automatic writing and telekinesis. For the past century, Watkins has been London’s spiritual home for everyone from Wiccans to conspiracy theorists. In addition to the books, the store offers crystals, Tibetan singing bowls and more than enough tarot cards to satisfy any self-proclaimed psychic. Even the carpeting is decorated with an ancient Egyptian design. Richard Dawkins would not feel at home.
For sceptically-minded people, occult bookstores can seem like the literary equivalent of health food stores, full fuzzy promises and suspiciously high price tags. Fortunately, Watkins has more than a hint of brimstone to combat the potentially bland array of yoga poses. In the dark and dusty basement, there are rows of books on older, stranger branches of the occult: Gnosticism, Alchemy, and wonderfully outlandish forms of mysticism. Some of the older authors here paid a heavy price for their work. Flipping through their books is a reminder that occult beliefs once lead to being burned at the stake rather than a few odd looks on Oxford Street.
The store’s unique selection is bound up with its long and tangled history. Started by John M. Watkins in 1893, the bookstore began as a catalogue of the ‘rejected sciences’. The 19th century was the heyday of spiritualism, with psychics across Europe and North America knocking on tables and expelling ectoplasm. Arthur Conan Doyle had joined the Society for Psychical Research and members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were dabbling in astral travel. The time was ripe for Madame Blavatsky to begin her famous Theosophical Society, an esoteric belief system that borrowed liberally from Eastern and Western mysticism.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was born in 1831 to an aristocratic Russian family living in Yekaterinoslav. Her biography is patchy, largely because it relies on her own contradictory accounts. She claimed to have studied under a group of Tibetan mystics who helped advance her psychic powers. The theosophical moment she helped found was intended to be the rebirth of an “Ancient Wisdom” at the root of all religion. Watkins was Blavatsky’s friend and disciple, publishing her classic book of weird metaphysics The Secret Doctrine. The idea for the bookshop was reputedly born when she complained there was nowhere to buy books on the occult, metaphysics, and mysticism in London. Given that Blavatsky claimed to be a messianic figure with psychic powers, it isn’t surprising that Watkins agreed.
The store flourished, attracting the famous and outlandish members of Europe’s spiritually-minded elite. The poet W.B. Yeats was known to pop by, as was G.R.S. Mead, an impressively moustachioed British historian who influenced Carl Jung. Perhaps inevitably, Aleister Crowley was also a patron. Crowley is without doubt the most infamous English practitioner of the occult. He’s also the only one to be commemorated in an Ozzy Osbourne song (see the album Blizzard of Ozz, released in 1980). Crowley created the religion Thelema (Greek for ‘will’) and named himself its prophet. One of the central precepts of Thelema, “Do what thou wilt”, encouraged followers to act as they pleased, discovering and expressing the individual’s inner desires. He scandalized British society with his drug use, sexual escapades, and idiosyncratic approach to spirituality. The self-appointed Antichrist, The Great Beast 666, and ‘wickedest man in the world’, has had an enduring influence on pop culture, including the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones.
Given that Crowley was also a novelist and poet, it’s no surprise that he frequented Watkins. The Great Beast was, however, not always an easy guest. His first biographer John Symonds recounts how Crowley used magic to make all of the books in Watkin’s store vanish. Fortunately, he was courteous enough to also make the books reappear afterwards. Crowley’s presence lingers on at Watkins, with a large selection of his writing as well as assorted biographies. Anyone with an interest in learning more about Crowley’s mountain top sex magic rituals or attempts to summon the demon, Chorozon, would do well to pay a visit.
Today Watkins remains a vibrant and eccentric presence in London’s increasingly homogenous centre. The bookstore runs regular free events on topics ranging from Oracle Cards to reflexology. It also boasts a magazine, psychics for hire, and titles ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. This diversity is the better part of Watkins’ charm. What other bookstore would have an entire category devoted to creatures of the night? Where else could you find William Gleeson’s historical novel Before the Delusion: Secret Vatican Files of the Pyramids and Stonehenge or buy “shadow defence aura spray”? There is something for every curious person. The store also houses some of John Watkins’ original collection of occult literature. Browsing through books of alchemical symbols with the scent of incense wafting in the air, it’s easy to feel a part of the history of English mysticism.
Photography curtesy of Watkins Books