“You want to ask about the penis candles now?”
Phillip English is sitting against the blood-red, back wall of Catland, an occult bookstore in Bushwick. He is partially obscured by a stack of vibrantly colored, limited edition books that have just arrived in a shipment from England.
“Not really,” I reply.
English, who is one of Catland’s three co-owners, is used to answering questions about the shop’s phallic paraphernalia. Most articles about Catland—of which there have been many since the store opened its doors last February—make at least passing mention of it, although Catland’s in-house tarot reader and midnight cleansing rituals have been stirring up a fair bit of buzz too. And thanks to a surprisingly zesty Internet debate over whether the folks at Catland should be seen as witches or hipsters (apparently they can’t be both), English has recently been fielding inquiries about the shop’s role in the gentrification of Bushwick. But what he really wants to talk about are books, specifically the lovingly crafted texts that line Catland’s walls and crowd the wooden display tables that are packed into the store.
“We’re book nerds, so the books are here because it’s important to us,” he says. “It’s important to our DNA to be selling the coolest books.”
The books at Catland are indeed very cool, and very diverse. Dozens of paperbacks are stacked neatly on shelves that run the length of the store, many of them instructive books geared towards newcomers to the occult world: Tarot 101, Divination For Beginners, Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft. There is more specified, less accessible literature, too. The Book of the Law, for example, is a book of esoteric poetry that acts as the central text of Thelema, a modern magical religion that is the focus of much of English’s spiritual practice (he calls himself a “Thelemite”).
Then there are the beautiful, limited edition books that Catland received in the aforementioned shipment from England, the latest offerings of a small British publishing house called Scarlet Imprint. English refers to these books as “talismanic texts,” because they are thought to possess a magic of their own, a magic that is drawn from the consideration and artistry that goes into the books’ production. “There’s the belief that these books carry power that’s beyond the texts themselves,” English explains. He pauses for a moment. “And they look cool.”
English starts shifting through the stack of new Scarlet Imprint books, which are piled high on a display case at the back of the shop. “We got one I’m really excited about,” he said. “The St. Cyprian.”
Fred Jennings, another of Catland’s co-owners, pops out from the dusky event space that is connected to the shop. “The St. Cyprian?” he asks. “I want to put my mouth on it. Where is it?”
“Please don’t,” English says, as he unearths a midnight blue hard cover sprinkled with golden stars. It is called The Testament of Cyprian the Mage, and it explores the history of traditions associated with St. Cyprian of Antioch, a sorcerer who converted to Christianity but—according to legend—continued to write magical texts while he was serving as a Catholic bishop.
“The color is chosen, the symbolism is chosen specifically dedicated to the subject matter,” English explains, running his fingers over the book’s dust jacket. St. Cyprian is associated with both lunar magic and the color indigo; because the cover of The Testament of Cyprian the Mage echoes these attributes, it can be used in rituals devoted to the saint. In fact, English recently placed the book on an altar that he is building to the spirit of Saint Cyprian.
“I’m putting nice things on it that are resonant with his vibe,” he explains. “This is part of focusing in that type of ritualistic magic.”
Next, English shows me two new Scarlet Imprint hard covers bound in shimmering silks, the first one red, the second black. The books are companion volumes devoted to Pumba Gira and Exu, spirits of an Afro-Brazilian tradition called Quimbanda. These are pragmatic texts, rife with instructions for various spells and incantations (one spell in the Pumba Gira book promises “to break a couple or make a couple”; among the required ingredients for the rite are popcorn and cigars). But according to English, the books themselves can be considered talismans and incorporated into rituals, just like The Testament of Cyprian the Mage.
“Pumba Gira is very much fire, and women’s sexuality and carnality,” he says, picking up the red volume. “Even in her rites, there are a lot of offerings and red dresses. This book is instruction, but it’s also meant to have spirit in it … The binding itself is within the nature of Pumba Gira.”
He places his hand on the black volume. “Similarly, we have Exu. Exu is dark, male carnality and vice, amongst other things.”
The talismanic nature of occult literature doesn’t only derive from the beauty of a given book. Sometimes, occult publishing houses will print only a specific number of books because that number is sacred to the spirit or deity that is the subject of the text. One of the texts that arrived in Catland’s new shipment is a lushly bound book called Howlings, a turquoise hardcover stamped with an intricate, gilded pattern of interlocking pentagons and diamonds. Howlings deals specifically with diabolical spirits, so Scarlet Imprint produced exactly 666 copies.
Occult revivals that are bubbling up in Brooklyn and in other pockets across the country have ushered in something of a Golden Age for small-press, metaphysical publishing houses. “That’s sort of the new wave of occult books: a re-evaluation of occult book as tome, and as talisman.” English tells me. “Occultists or magicians, they tend to be collectors … They can appreciate the sort of art and magic that went into the work itself.” Which isn’t to say that all members of the occult community buy into the idea of book-as-talisman. Phil Hine, a British occultist who has written several books on a practice called Chaos Magic, is among the witches and magicians who have questioned the value of ornately bound hard covers to magical rites. “Generally, I buy books because of the content,” he writes on his blog. “Presentation is a secondary consideration.”
Books like Howlings or the Testament of St. Cyprian the Mage are expensive, too. A small-press text can run anywhere from $45-$80, and some of the shop’s more elusive books are sold for several hundred dollars. But English is quick to suggest that any book can be considered “talismanic,” as long as it is special to the person who owns it (“You can have non-religious people who are like, ‘This is the copy of Dostoyevsky that I have, and it’s important to me.’”). In his eyes, and in the eyes of the customers who come to Catland looking for thoughtfully-crafted texts, beautiful books simply add another dimension to rituals that are already preoccupied with engaging the senses through color, incense, dance, and song.
“Magic ritual is a sensual experience,” English says. “There’s something to be said about books having a smell, and touch, and feeling that the Kindle won’t have. For me, if I’m doing ritual, I want to feel like a wizard.”