When I was told I would be looking for a magic shop, I had somehow expected to find mullioned windows and heavy stone arches outside, and a dark and fusty interior with a flagged stone floor supporting cabinets fronted with grimy glass containing unidentifiable objects of great antiquity. The modern store I was now standing in front of had large plate glass windows bordered with brightly-coloured plastic signage. Through the windows, I could see neat rows of shelves lit by fluorescent lighting, professionally stacked with packages and jars.
I knew the back streets of this English university city pretty well after all these years and I thought I could make my way to the address given to me without recourse to map or A-to-Z. Even so, I felt sure I would have noticed this shop before now, during one of those many aimless wanderings that students with more time than money seem to engage in.
At first, I was convinced that this was not the place I was seeking. I walked further down the street, then turned and came back the same way. My mind was in turmoil, imagining the pain of failure and embarrassment if I had to go back to my tutor and admit that I could not find the emporium he had recommended.
As I approached for the second time, the store seemed to be drawing me to it; I could hardly turn my eyes away. Amazingly, the occasional passers-by did not seem to be interested at all, walking past without glancing at the brightly-lit windows, almost as if they were passing a blank wall.
My resolve stiffened, and I stepped towards the entrance. The door slid open automatically as I approached. I looked around. A couple of checkouts stood to one side, emitting soft beeps as items were run under the laser barcode readers by the operators, who were then packing the purchases into plain white plastic carrier bags. On the other side, there was a stack of those wire shopping baskets you see everywhere. Automatically, I picked one up.
No one seemed to be paying me any attention at all. I headed for the nearest section of shelving for a closer look. These racks stocked fresh fruit and vegetables. The first item my eye fell upon was Mandragora roots, resembling rather wrinkled greenish beetroots, packed in a black plastic tray that might have held avocadoes in Sainsbury's and wrapped in clingfilm, the whole labelled carefully with price, barcode and best-before date.
I knew from my studies that Mandragora officinarum was a powerful herbal remedy, often indicated to increase fertility in women, and had several uses in the Wiccan crafts, although it was not on my shopping list for today. I had vaguely expected that magical plants would be obtained by furtive under-the-counter transactions in out-of-the-way parts of obscure country markets, not pre-washed, packaged and displayed in a style which would put Marks and Sparks to shame. My mind swirling, I finally focussed on the sign attached to the front of the shelving. 'Special offer,' it read, '50 pence off fresh Mandrake.'
The shop was a veritable treasure-trove and I struggled against my female instinct to buy far too much stuff. In the end, I mostly contented myself with browsing. In the books and publications section, I picked up an unabridged edition of the Book of Shadows - it seems unwarranted to hand-copy in this day and age - and a small notebook with a stout cardboard cover which I proposed to use for my personal insights as a Book of Mirrors.
The hardware section included a display of tools and equipment for all of the rituals I knew about, as well as items I could not imagine a use for. I spent an interminable time selecting my knives: an Athame - which is a large, heavy but blunt knife used in rituals to channel energy - and a Boline, which is a small and much sharper knife for cutting things in the physical world. These were both sealed in thick plastic and card packaging to avoid damage and to prevent anyone touching them with malicious intent.
I found boxed candles and a couple of small crystals, also on my list. I did not select other items I knew I would eventually need for rituals and spells later on - a cauldron and a wand, for example - I knew I would be coming back for more very soon. The only thing I bought which was not on my shopping list was a tiny silver pendant in the shape of a pentacle. The price indicated was very modest and I could already imagine it nestling between my breasts.
Making my way towards the checkouts, I passed the vegetable racks again. My Green environmental sensibility was faintly outraged at the level of - surely quite unnecessary - wrapping, although I did notice that at least the packaging was separable, so that the trays and punnets could be easily recycled.
A pimply-faced young man was manning the checkouts, wearing a discreet badge announcing his name as 'Tim'. He smiled warily at me. Out of nervousness, I suppose, I smiled widely back at him.
"Can I help you with the packing?" he asked, smiling more broadly and looking me in the eyes rather disconcertingly.
I let him help, although I would normally have refused. He seemed so eager to please, chattering on about each item as he packed my purchases into a carrier bag. As he ran the last item under the scanner and rang up the final total, he said, "So we'll be seeing you again, then?"
"I expect so," I responded airily, picking up my plastic carrier pointedly, "And next time I'll bring a reusable bag."