If you've ever knocked on wood or thrown salt over your shoulder to ward off bad luck, you've practiced a little magic without realizing it. Many still fear the word because of the history of persecution against people who identify as witches (or have that identification made for them), but in recent times Durham has been steadily coming out of the broom closet.
Perhaps it started last year, when the artist collective Slow Holler raised more than $50,000 from almost nine hundred backers on Kickstarter to create a tarot deck illustrated by people with queer identities and Southern ties.
The trend picked up steam with the opening of Arcana, a bar behind Beyù Caffè, in December. Tarot infuses the lounge's décor, a mélange of Art Nouveau and New Orleans. Its second art exhibit, Tarot Dreamscapes, opened last week, featuring local artists' paintings and collages of tarot images. The bar frequently hosts tarot readers, whom you'll also find at Ginger Wagg's April 2 Carrack fund-raiser for an upcoming dance work.
And then there's Everyday Magic, a store that sells magical items from around the world. At the grand opening on March 19, owner Bakara Wintner was overwhelmed by the support for her new business. In a bright, spacious corner on Parrish Street, more than thirty patrons filled the store, which carries everything from crystals and tarot decks to oils and books on magic.
"I wanted to open up a space that was a culmination of the physical objects I was recommending to my clients already," Wintner says. "I want Everyday Magic to be a one-stop shop for the mind, body, and spirit."
Wintner, who has been reading tarot professionally for several years, moved to North Carolina in 2013. Using magic to heal what she calls her "chaotic past," she believes in a connection between healing work and sacred spaces. She hopes that her shop can be one for the local magic scene.
"There are a lot of people who practice magic, but there aren't a lot of communal spaces," she says. "Practicing magic alone is hard, if not impossible, and I wanted to combat the notion that magic is just for one type of person."
The weeks leading up to the opening were not without challenges. Shortly after Wintner launched Everyday Magic's online store and Facebook page, several people (none of whom would comment for this story) accused Wintner of cultural appropriation for things like selling Native American dream catchers by Christian Berry, an artist who appears white but claims Native American heritage.
Wintner identifies as a "white witch," referring to a type of magic, not race. But race and privilege are at the heart of the issue, with commenters worrying that Everyday Magic is a place for wealthy white people to purchase other people's spiritual practices.
Though small in scale, the conflict hooks into large questions of who owns a certain culture—and who owns Durham, a city undergoing rapid gentrification. In an open letter on Everyday Magic's Facebook page, Wintner acknowledged that she has never experienced poverty and benefits from white privilege, but also does "not believe these objects have to be a part of my culture for me to showcase them with intention and integrity, raise up the people who made them, and share them with others."
Whatever Wintner's intentions, there are valid questions about the commercial representation of a subculture by those who can afford a storefront—just as there are valid questions about who gets to draw the line between honoring and appropriating something as culturally diverse as magic.
Access is another issue in the mainstreaming of magic, which goes far beyond Durham. Even Urban Outfitters is now selling books on Wicca, tarot decks, and something called "crystal cactus mystic moon oil." Jameela Dallis of Chapel Hill, who has read tarot for more than fifteen years, worries that trendy commercialization can drive up costs and harm more dedicated practitioners.
"It can hinder access to folks who need it," says Dallis. "And that can be stifling. People feel powerless in the face of unexplainable bad things that are happening. Magic can help people connect with higher sources outside of or within themselves."
Wintner says the concerns she's heard on social media are valid, but she stands by her shop and her vision. "I've done everything I can to integrate into this community and be mindful of how I operate my store," she explains. She says she buys items ethically and notes each one's origin and cultural history in the store. She plans to offer affordable workshops taught by people of diverse backgrounds. Mostly, she's driven by carving out a safe space for herself and others like her, and she's not alone.
Amanda Morris, of the Triangle Area Pagan Alliance, is dedicated to networking and creating safe public spaces for pagans. As a neo-Wiccan, Morris focuses on self-knowledge and the divine. She uses crystals, makes her own oil blends, and creates offerings for a wide range of deities.
"There's a really big community of pagans in the Triangle," says Morris, noting the Pagan Pride Day held each September at Raleigh's fairgrounds.
Lindsey Andrews and Erin Karcher, the co-owners of Arcana, say that social media has created a new platform for practices that have existed more covertly for a long time, allowing people to share their beliefs and find others like themselves.
"People are searching for guidance, answers, and community along different avenues, and tarot is one channel for that," they said by email. "It creates an instant intimacy that allows people to connect and think about things that are otherwise hard to broach."
Given the continual legislative assault on the legal rights of the LGBTQ community in North Carolina, perhaps it's not surprising that magic has an especially strong currency among marginalized groups who are searching for different routes to safety and healing. While some gather in churches to pray, others bless crystals under the full moon. Either way, Dallis is optimistic about the future of magic.
"People have been practicing magic for eons," she says. "We're not going anywhere and we're not going to be silent. We're not going to practice in the dark; we're going to practice in the light."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Do You Believe in Magic?."