Life

Exploring The Strange Intersection Where Yelp Meets The Occult

SPOOKY-1-UPROXX
Shutterstock / Uproxx

“Absolutely wonderful!!! I had a tarot reading here in 2013, two months later so many life changes happened. Spot on!” – 4/5 stars, Reg R. from Brooklyn, New York

“There seemed to be something wrong here. It gave me a bad feeling and made me feel overwhelmingly dizzy. Can’t pinpoint why, but thought I would share.” – 2/5 stars, Jillian F. from Redondo Beach, California

Hex: Old World Witchery is stationed on Decatur Street, along the eastern edge of the French Quarter, not far from the Mississippi River. Like most occult shops in this New Orleans, it’s cramped, the claustrophobia amplified by the constant conveyor belt of tourists passing through. The main room’s walls are stacked with typical magical fare — charms, candles, incense, and idols. Hex’s doors are propped wide, letting in sunlight and an unseasonably warm breeze. A secondary room is largely taken up by what looks to be a repurposed confession booth. Through a curtained partition, the silhouettes of two people can be seen hunched over a table, as the sound of a shuffling cards slips through the thin cloth barrier. There’s a small library of grimoires and astrology handbooks on a nearby bookshelf.

Hex’s prices are a little steep, though this seems to be the case more often than not with occult vendors. Witchcraft is a boutique business, and like any other specialized supply outlet, those who corner the market can set the prices pretty much as they see fit. A copy of Aleister Crowley’s Gems from the Equinox fetches about fifty bucks, while The Magical Properties of Plants and How to Find Them by Tylluan Penry will set you back forty. Quick fixes are less expensive, a casual passerby looking for small charms and trinkets can nab a set of coffin nails for only five dollars. Using them will aid in “all manner of protection, warding, reversing, and hexing spells!” according to the instruction slip.

Tourists looking for trinkets and joke gifts don’t care about quality, but true practitioners of the dark arts need wares they can depend on. It used to be that word-of-mouth and personal experience were all anyone had to uncover places like Old World Witchery, but now that online sites like Yelp encourage everyone to be a critic, it’s easier than ever to preview a store based on firsthand accounts of former customers.

“We’ve kind of created a little empire for ourselves. It’s all absolutely witchcraft and occult-oriented, but it’s our business, our corporation,” Brian Cain, co-owner of Hex, tells me a few days later.

When speaking about Warlocks Inc. — the venture he started with his husband, Christian Day — Cain pitches like the Don Draper of the magic world. I hardly have to ask any questions, because he’s anticipated those (premonitions, perhaps?) and provided specific answers. It’s no surprise to discover that both Cain and Day have been witchcraft practitioners for decades.

Warlocks Inc. started as a single store in Salem, Massachusetts, but after its success, Cain and his husband rapidly expanded into new markets and locations. Omen, a psychic parlor, is also located in Salem, and Hex now has its sister shop in New Orleans. The couple also organize occult-related conferences throughout the year, one of which, HexFest, sold out nine months before the event was held.

Warlocks Inc. also includes Psychics for Hire, which employs hundreds of gifted seers to work from their own homes. Telling fortunes over the phone may sound like a pretty sweet gig, but this isn’t some cheap outfit hiring just anybody off the street. Cain and Day vet all employees before they can pick up a receiver. The same goes for the actual items offered in stores. Cain describes the intricate process that goes into making all of Hex’s gris-gris bags, traditional Voodoo good luck charms and talismans, remembering the detail his husband put into their crafting.

“I was like, ‘You’re really dedicated to this!’ because some of these ingredients are not easy to come by. He was like, ‘Of course I am. I want them to work.'”

tarrot-card-uproxx
Shutterstock / Uproxx

This may not be the case for all shops, of course. In a business that relies on supposed expertise not available to the immediate public, charlatans abound. Cain tells of a shop in the area that supposedly stuffs their gris-gris bags with oregano. Still, the couple’s rigorous attention to detail seems a bit paradoxical. After all, in its original Latin form, the word “occult” literally means “hidden” or “secreted away.” Can quality ever be assured for an industry that traffics in the ephemeral?

“I believe we really deal with [customers] the same way any other corporation would,” Cain says. “We want them to be satisfied and happy. We do whatever we can to satisfy the customer because we want repeat business.”

There’s a real pride in Cain’s voice, a sense that he truly is trying to provide the best he can for his clientele. He wants the products offered by Warlocks Inc. to provide real results.

“Ingredients have certain vibrations, and we want them to be the highest quality,” he says.

Even if the results and psychic forecasts aren’t exactly quantifiable, the Warlocks Inc. business model appears to be working. Cain and his husband run their own public figure pages, along with Facebook sites for their stores. All told, Cain estimates they reach over forty thousand followers. Of course, complaints inevitably arise in a network that large.

“In any corporation, you’re going to get that person,” Cain says. “We do, too. But because it’s a spiritual, magical background, you’re going to get a few whack-jobs. They’re very few and far in between.”

He describes the varieties of customer responses to stores in the area, explaining that a few he’s seen are “extremely colorful,” to say the least.

“And some of those people, you know, they’re just a mom and pop store owner. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s just a very different creature. Not everyone who owns a store cares about customer service.”

After speaking with Cain, I browse Yelp. Hex in New Orleans has a four-star average, but one particularly vicious online take-down of comes from a woman who claims, among other things, that the owners threatened to cast demons her way after an in-store dispute over prices. Below the review, a lengthy response is offered by Christian Day, separated into sections addressing each of the woman’s concerns and accusations.

“The only discussion of ‘demons’…was her telling me she eats demons for breakfast,” writes Day. “Hex is not for everyone, but rather it is for those who truly believe in magic and wonder of Witchcraft…Nor is Hex a Walmart that seeks to caters [sic] to the lowest common denominator.”

LOVERS-UPROXX
Shutterstock

“The interesting thing I’ve noticed, particularly about these kinds of shops…is that most of the issues that consumers have are actually about things like customer service,” Darnell Holloway, Yelp’s director of business outreach, tells me over the phone from his New York office. “It’s pretty much the same things that consumers have come to expect from any business.”

What started in 2004 as a novel approach to obtaining local company and service reviews, now reaches over twenty-one million unique users every month through the Yelp app, with an additional sixty-nine million checking in via mobile and desktop. Holloway argues that the crowdsourcing nature of services like Yelp is what makes online review culture so invaluable to both consumers and business owners alike.

“It’s not about one person’s opinion making or breaking a business. It’s about the wisdom of the crowd,” he says.

Unfortunately, crowds can’t always be trusted to make rational, informed decisions, and it’s not like society has historically has sound judgement regarding witches, anyway. Still, Holloway insists the architects of Yelp are constantly monitoring for malicious writing and disingenuous or inaccurate reviews. A system exists for business owners to flag what they feel are misleading or biased entries, and a content support team constantly keeps an eye out for various forms of hate speech. If anything, Holloway contends, Yelp and similar services provide fail-safes previously unavailable to both consumers and business owners.

“These conversations are already happening in the offline world. Word of mouth happens; it’s been around for ages,” he says. “Yelp is just amplifying that word of mouth…It also gives the business owner the ability to see what’s being said and respond in kind, if necessary.”

Holloway pauses as the clacking of a keyboard echoes over the phone line.

“I just did a quick search myself, and I came across…Hex: Old World Witchery. They’re psychics, right? That’s something that’s very subjective, and something most consumers might be a little wary of. But the fact that Hex has a four-star rating and fifty-six reviews means that, time after time, consumers feel that it is really working for them.”

He laughs, and admits to his own firsthand knowledge of this particular subject area. Not too long ago, Darnell Holloway turned to his employer for the best in locally-sourced occult services. He explains his first living space in New York City, an older building in the East Village which was also occupied by very loud, very elderly, upstairs neighbor.

“The energy felt kind of odd in there, and so someone suggested that I sage my apartment,” he recalls, referring to the practice of burning the plant around one’s home, to cleanse it of negative spirits.

“I did a search on Yelp, and I came across a place in Lower Manhattan. I went in there, and the customer service was amazing.”

The employee taught Holloway the fundamentals of what saging entails, then advised him on specific crystals intended to help promote positive energy.

“So, basically, I bought a bag of sage, I learned how to do it at the shop, I bought some crystals, and I went home and did it. And it actually seemed to make the place feel better after that. Of course, that’s just my suggestive opinion.”

All in all, Holloway hopes Yelp can provide others with the same sort of jumping off point it did for him.

“We want to help consumers avoid the snake oil salesmen of the world, if that makes sense,” he says.

tarrot-caro-uproxx
Shutterstock / Uproxx

“I love Lady Mimi!…Her special incense blends and oil blends are the best.” – 5/5 stars, Divine J. from North Hollywood, California

“She definitely put a curse in the bottle with the essential oil. Don’t give her your money, stay away and protect your aura from this vortex of negative energy.” – 1/5 stars, Sarah L. from Brooklyn, New York

A few blocks from Hex, the doors at Esoterica are closed — perhaps just to shut out the wail of nearby street construction drilling. Black walls, dim lights, and the faint wailing of some chant-based music echo from the back room. The store is empty except for a woman behind the counter and skittish couple keeping careful not to touch anything on the shelves. The man sports an oversized t-shirt, faded blue jeans, and dusty work boots. The sickle edge of a tribal tattoo peeks out from his sleeve. The woman has dyed strands of hair dangling from a hastily pinned bun, she frowns as she inspects a tray of pungent spice vials.

“Does this, uh, cleanse things?” the man asks the clerk, pointing to one of the bottles.

“Does it what?” the woman behind the counter asks sharply, arching an eyebrow.

“How does it work? Does it get rid of bad stuff?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the woman answers, standing up. She’s middle-aged with wide, shockingly blue eyes framed by pitch-black bangs. “You got bedroom problems?” She eyes his crotch.

“Let’s go,” says the man’s girlfriend, turning for the door.

The woman walks around the counter, ignoring the disdain, her eyes locked on the boyfriend. He remains where he stands, legs stiff.

“She’s pregnant,” he points behind him, “and, um, the room that’s gonna be for the baby… she walked in and said she felt some kind of bad energy in there. We were hoping there’d be something for that here.”

“Ahh. Okay. So you’re worried about having a kid.”

“Yeah.” He smiles.

The woman grabs a bag labelled “Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“Take this, and burn it in the room for as long as you want along with some sage. Smells good, you’ll like it. Do it on a new moon, so it’ll be the start of a new cycle.”

The boyfriend takes the pocket-sized sack.

“Why do you think they took this shit to Jesus when he was a baby?” the woman asks. “Because it smells great, that’s why.”

The couple ponder this for a moment.

“We’re gonna think about it,” says the girlfriend.

“No problem.” The woman waves them away. “But you know,” she adds, and they pause at the door. “If you’re really worried about the nursery, it might be too dark in there. Could be giving you a negative vibe or whatever. Try opening the window curtains, or even pick another room with more natural light.”

“Oh, yeah,” the boyfriend says, cocking his head to one side as if just realizing this. “Thanks.”

“Mm-hmm,” says the woman without looking up.

Esoterica’s Yelp reviews present a similar overarching narrative to the anecdote above — quality goods, strange personnel.

“[T]he lady working there is abusive at best,” someone writes.

“My experience in her shop would rattle, if not scar, someone of a weaker disposition,” another warns.

Shortly after the couple’s departure, I ask the woman how customer relations in a digital age affect business that traffics in the occult.

“I had just recently found out what Yelp was, and it was cool,” she says.

This is Lady Mimi, owner and proprietor of Esoterica. She is quick to clarify “Mimi,” and not “Mina.”

“Lady Mina, that annoys me, because that’s very Vampire Lestat oriented. That means I know [they’re] doing hokey-pokey shit, or reading hokey-pokey shit. It’s Dracula, man. I dig Dracula, but I’m Lady Mimi. I don’t want anyone coming in here looking for Mina.”

She describes the first negative review she read.

“This woman got on there, and she just changed the whole story. I thought it was kind of funny. Doesn’t faze me, because that’s what happens, unfortunately, with my business. People are hyper-sensitive.”

Lady Mimi’s been a practicing initiate for decades, first working in a now-defunct shop whose owner gave her, “really solid training…but as a person, was a tyrant,” and then launching her own store with a handpicked group of trusted witches. Her demeanor hasn’t seemed to affect sales terribly in the fifteen years they’ve been in operation.

“The best press is bad press!” she announces. “Bad reviews are the best! The best, the best, the best.”

“What do you do when they say something in person?” I ask.

“There’s always one that says, ‘Let’s go.’ I just continue on with what I’m doing. If they hang long enough, they’ll find out some shit.”

Her eyes narrow as she tilts her head back. “This is the occult,” she intones. “It is secret. It is hidden. It is not meant to be laid out for all those who think they deserve it, you know? It’s supposed to be like that.”

Lady Mimi grabs a grimoire from a shelf. “They’ll say, ‘How does this work?’ That makes me boil! Because,” she taps the cover, “that’s a book. What she really means to ask is, ‘How do I use this?’ Different question! I’m making their wheels turn, I’m making them mad.”

She replaces the tome.

“And good, maybe that’s what they needed. Because if they’re talking shit in here with me, they’re talking shit in their lives elsewhere.”

“What about the people who get pissed and just leave?” I ask.

“I let them go! Absolutely. It’s not for me to give them jewels that they do not appreciate. No, no, no.” Lady Mimi wags a finger. “People got to live and learn. And I do, too! They can be mad at me, I’m mad at me.”

The doorbell chimes, and a gaggle of tourists shuffle inside.

“Do you need to go check on them?” I ask.

“Nope. Everybody’s fine. They’re just walking through. I’m not all, ‘Can I help you?’ Those words don’t come out of my mouth…That’s the best sales tactic.”

“Would you ever give the wrong advice to really problematic customers?” I ask.

“Never, no. My job as a priestess is to give them that which I know they didn’t carry.”

She glances at the tourists, then back at me.

“You don’t need a .44 magnum to kill a pigeon, man,” she says. “All you need is a slingshot, and good aim… Oh!” she shouts, and I jump. “Let me show you my Jesus slingshot!”

Lady Mimi leads me to a display case housing a slingshot with Jesus’s splayed arms as the crossbeam, before walking back behind the counter as the tourists start picking out their souvenirs. She opens the register, ready for the customers.

“There’s an art and a science to practicing ritual magic,” she concludes. “But you don’t need that! You wanna enjoy the soup, just eat the fucking soup! Don’t take it apart, man.”

×