The Occult Bookstore has math on the door.
No stones or charms, no curses or skulls of curly-horned devils — those are all inside. The door has just a three-by-three grid with the numbers one through nine written in the boxes.
It’s called a magic square. The numbers are arranged so that no matter in what direction you add them up they come to 15.
4 9 2
3 5 7
8 1 6
This is the door you open to go inside.
Books and stones. Books and stones.
The stones on the tables scattered through the comfy store are for charms. Different quartzes with different functions, meanings and protections. Some on necklaces, some put in little bowls with cards explaining the rock and its uses.
There’s a large counter with a friendly man and a friendly dog protecting some of the more valuable spell books and herbs.
The books on the walls were spells and Bibles and Buddhas, guides to removing hexes and “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens.”
They were books on magic and religion and science and philosophy jumbled together in a way that made sense to maybe someone who was not me.
“Zorba the Greek” was tucked in among books on the practices of Christianity. A children’s photo book from 1984 on the space shuttle was stationed among astrological ephemerides, fortunetellers’ dry lists of tables and charts plotting out the sun’s, moon’s and planets’ positions for centuries.
And above it all, above the shelves and the signs asking patrons not to take photos without permission — jumbles, baubles, empty bottles and statues of gods and demons from a hundred religions.
“It’s a wizards altar,” the friendly man with the friendly dog said. “Although the word ‘wizard’ is too Western, conjures up images of Merlin.”
Each object earned its place on the altar by representing a different deity in a way “the magician working with it” deemed.
There were statues and relics, of course. Votive candles and blown glass jars.
But there was also a patriotically branded Budweiser tall boy can. There was a plastic souvenir model of the Liberty Bell.
“Do you see Darth Vader up there?” the man said.
I looked and, amid the gods and jars, saw a small plastic head of pater Skywalker screwed onto what looked like an empty glass bottle.
“He’s there because that represents Baron Samedi who was a loa,” he said.
Haitian Vodou in a “Star Wars” baddie.
The store started on State Street in 1920 according to their website, 1918 according to an official description added to a road trip website. The founder, a man named D. G. Nelson, used to do “face reading.” He would look at your face and tell you if you were a Cancer, a Virgo, a Gemini and what would happen to you.
The Occult Bookstore bounced around over the years, spent a long time at the Flat Iron Building before landing at its current home.
The man behind the counter telling me all this could have been anywhere between his 30s and 50s. Fit and healthy, he smiled with a relaxation in his eyes that most people don’t get. Ever.
He said he had worked there since he was 16.
I have an atheist love of religion, a refusal to draw a line between their created faith and the one you had created for you.
If anything, the cobbled-together faith(s) on the wizards altar is probably a purer creed, more direct and connected to the faithful than the inherited hand-me-downs that never quite fit anyone.
We say the Apostle’s Creed now because now’s the time we say the Apostle’s Creed. We wear a tunic because we wear a tunic. We daven here because of course we do. Of course.
Instead, this collection of gods, demons and souvenir Liberty Bells touches and is touched by those who believe.
“Occult” means hidden. It’s a technical term too. In a solar eclipse, the moon occults the sun. A particularly complicated way of taking atmospheric measurements by satellite is called “GNSS radio occultation.”
And hidden behind these books and stones, herbs, totems and Vader-on-a-jar is meaning. Meaning for some, not all. Meaning for the magicians who find it there, hidden behind a math-laden door in Chicago.