On a dark Saturday in early October, I narrowly avoided a thunderstorm en route to the spirit-communication class at The Occult Bookstore in Wicker Park (1164 N. Milwaukee Ave.). Yet despite the ominous clouds looming above, the 95-year-old shop was anything but sinister. Tendrils of incense smoke curled around the room, which was packed with crowded bookshelves, small shrines, tapestries, and crystals. A white unicorn stood solemnly in the window.
My experience with the mystical is primarily limited to drinking wine and eating cheese balls while a friend reads tarot. Emphasis: she reads. I drink. A different friend introduced me to the I Ching—an ancient Chinese book that provides personal advice and divination based on casting coins—and that does really intrigue me. So I entered The Occult Bookstore with a slightly skeptical but mostly earnest desire to learn more about spirit guides.
A Welcoming Atmosphere
Any speciality store can be overwhelming, even intimidating. The Occult Bookstore, however, is refreshingly warm—during my visit, the staff was far more approachable than the employees at your average comics or record shop. And the customers were as diverse as the shop’s collection of books, which ranged from used and rare tomes devoted to mediumship, alchemic magick, and witchcraft to standard astrology, self-help, and religious texts.
Before my class started, I stole a few moments with two of the bookstore’s resident clairvoyants—Carla Starla, who would be leading the day’s session, and J Francis Nash, who teaches Spiritual Journey: Beginning Magic. We spoke in a hushed area partitioned off by curtains and filled with the types of accoutrement one would expect to find in a wizard’s solar. Despite these almost sacred surroundings, Starla and Nash were both bright and animated as they explained the importance of maintaining a welcoming atmosphere.
“Spirituality,” Nash said, “whether it’s used to be a devotional thing, a divination thing, or if it’s just for a person to be present in their space, that’s what we’re here for: to help them be more comfortable.”
“Born with It”
Starla and Nash’s individual journeys have been very different, but their beginnings are the same. When asked how they became interested in the clairvoyant lifestyle, they both chuckled and in unison answered, “Born with it.”
From the start, Starla was encouraged to develop the gift of clairvoyance by her family—in particular, her tarot-reading aunts. Like Starla, Nash also recognized his abilities at a young age but had less support from his family. “I started doing readings online when I was 9 years old. I went to the chatrooms and was like, ‘Yeah, I’m a 25-year-old and I’ve been doing this forever,’ [but] I’m the 9-year-old in their parents’ kitchen [who] couldn’t let my parents see because they were Catholic,” he said, laughing. “I stopped a few times because things got a little too intense.”
Nash often struggled to separate himself from the feelings of those he was reading online and in person. “The folks here [in the store] helped me take the reins of my gifts and actually start using them,” he said.
Thunderstorms and Unicorns
As we concluded our talk, students in the spirit-communication class began filing into the back room. Like everything I had witnessed at The Occult Bookstore, the structure of the class was laid-back and multifarious—more open forum than lecture. There were nine students total—some new like me and some who were regulars. Some students sat behind crystals and altars. One woman drew a picture of the spirit she saw present in the room.
Starla lit a purple candle and said a prayer before asking us to introduce ourselves and explain why we were there. Everyone, it seemed, was searching for something. Starla jumped in by doing brief readings to better acquaint us with our spirit guides. The first student she focused on seemed shy, if not closed off. Starla asked for her full name and then shut her eyes. “I’m seeing ‘Wiccan,’” she said, opening her eyes. “Have you thought about pursuing Wicca?” She asked after such a short while that I half-expected my classmate to demand Starla close her eyes and keep listening. But I was wrong.
“Yes!” Her face lit up and she actually cut out of the class early, hot on the heels of her Wiccan journey.
Another one of the regulars was struggling with whether to end a relationship, even though her beau’s spirit guide was begging her to stay. “I’ve had exes’ spirits ask me to stay in relationships that weren’t good for me,” Starla confided. “Of course they would want you there to help, to take the load off of them. But just because a spirit tells you to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it."
Soon we reached perhaps the most intriguing classmate: a practicing sorcerer who was interested in wrangling a spirit he himself had created—and in delving into the details of a friend's relationship status. "[My friend, ‘Luke’] and his girlfriend broke up and now a spirit is haunting her, and she says it's his fault so he wants to know if it is." A few of us exchanged glances, revealing our sudden interest in learning how you go about haunting an ex. But Starla listened and advised that if it's the girlfriend’s ghost, it's her issue. “One last thing,” the sorcerer added. “He also wants to know if they’ll get back together.”
“Not at this time,” Starla said. “But that’s all Luke gets because Luke’s not here.”
By the time we got to me, there had been enough talk about romance that I was ready to hear some pretty spectacular news about a future mate. But as I learned from all those tarot readings in the past, the mysteries of my love life are far beyond the powers of divination. Instead, Starla revealed that my guide––apparently a “sister-like” spirit, though I can’t personally confirm that––is encouraging me to write a book. I will say, either my spirit guide knows exactly what I want to hear or her encouragement is really working.
As rain pounded against the window, the conversations ranged from love spells to lucid dreams to fears of the afterlife. One fellow student was especially versed in identifying spirit animals, which she did for each of us. The animal she saw with me was a unicorn. After a bit of Googling and wading through some pretty inspired unicorn fan art on my phone, I learned that a unicorn represents purity, wisdom, intuition, and the ability to swiftly venture through the spiritual world. I thought about this as I exited the bookstore and passed the white unicorn in the window. Then I cursed myself for forgetting an umbrella and hightailed it to the Blue Line.
Starla teaches the spirit-communication class every first Saturday of the month from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Nash teaches the Spiritual Journey: Beginning Magic class every second Saturday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Both classes are $20.
Top photo: © Timothy Burkhart, Groupon; All other photos courtesy of Occult Bookstore