I founded Treadwell’s in 2003, after having been an academic. I decided I wanted to do something different with my life. I had a mission in mind – to create a place that would be a bridge, a meeting point, between the world of scholarship and and the esoteric world. Right from the beginning, that’s been my ambition.
My PhD was in the history of religion but I also had a lifelong private interest in Western mystical traditions and Pagan religions. It was a bold move to open a bookshop just as the online retail of books was taking off. I went into the bank to apply for a small loan, and the bank manager looked me in the eye and asked if I’d heard of something called Amazon. I had to explain to him why I was opening an independent bookshop in spite of Amazon. I had a very well-prepared speech.
What I told the bank manager, and what I still tell my staff, is that we have to work very hard to offer what the online experience can never provide, and that’s expertise, guidance, one-to-one interaction. Often people come in and they don’t really know what information they want or need. They come specifically to Treadwell’s for that process of discovery. All of our staff are really knowledgeable and we’ve given them extra training on how to tease out from customers what they’re looking for, even if they don’t have the words to describe it themselves. We also offer a place to meet other people who share an interest in the esoteric and mystical – we do that through our events, which have socials before and after, and again through the expertise of our staff. If you’re fascinated by Druids, and if you love the idea of Stonehenge and the mystical experience of nature you can buy all the books you like on Amazon, but if you come down to Treadwell’s our booksellers will know where there are other druids in London or Staffordshire or anywhere else. We’re guides, not just booksellers.
We don’t just sell books. We sell a range of herbs, essential oils and other supplies, from cauldrons to Abramelin oil, a magical oil used in ceremony to get in touch with holy guardian angels. People will come in to us because they want to give a new house protection, or they want to give a charm to their new niece or nephew. Tarot reading is also really important to us because it is a divinatory or fortune telling art that is grounded in the Western esoteric tradition. Tarot is a very learned practice – it takes about ten years of serious practice and study to become any good at it. We’re proud to have a space where we can showcase the very best tarot readers, who have been practising their symbolic art for 20, 30, 40 years. They’re some of the most extraordinary people.
Some of our customers are local and have an interest in the mystical specifically, but we also stock books on history, anthropology and religion and they come to us because we’re an intelligent independent bookshop. Our second category of customers are people with a hardcore interest in mystical subjects, people who have been studying Wicca or Paganism or Druidry or Kabbalah for 25 years. They might travel from Edinburgh or Oslo or even further afield to meet us because we’re staffed by people who share their passions. They want to talk about the latest developments in Kabbalah studies, or to see the newest translations of the Zohar, or to chat about whether Salvador Dali was really a magician or just an artist. Our last and very beloved category of customer is the new explorer. We love people who wander in and say, “I’m enchanted by the idea of magic and the English countryside but I don’t know where to start.” Again we’re guides – we’re not there to patronise and show newcomers how much we know, but to help them articulate their own needs and find a book that will encourage them to explore further.
Our long-time best-selling title for beginners is The Book of English Magic by Richard Heygate and Philip Carr-Gomm, published about six years ago. It’s about the amazing magical history of English landscape. So many people, whether they’re a visiting American tourist or someone who has always lived in London, are fascinated by the history of magic in England and this book suits them because it’s friendly but authoritative. At the moment we also can’t keep enough copies on the shelves of The Secret Lore of London by John Matthews and Caroline Wise, as so many people are wanting to know the lost mythical history of the place where they live. They were stories that everyone used to know, and that have now been forgotten.
We moved to our current premises in Bloomsbury in 2011. Within London’s square mile, and on our street alone, there are some of the most beautiful independent shops in the world. Like all of them, we can never rest on our laurels and we have to work to a very high standard. I also have to be able to pay my staff so that they can afford to get on the tube to get to work. I have to be able to look them in the eye. The finances of the shop are by far our biggest stress, so we’re always looking at ways of increasing revenue, and improving our sales, but without losing our identity and integrity. We would never sell someone the wrong book. We want to help our customers find the book that is perfect for them. 80 percent of books are apparently never even opened, they go unread. We want a different statistic for our customers.
We spoke to Christina Oakley Harrington, the founder of Treadwell’s Bookshop.
Treadwell’s is at 33 Store Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1E 7BS
Telephone: 0207 419 8507