The Secret History of New York's Wicca and Warlock Shop
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because belief is sometimes a funny thing.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The Western world has always had a special place in its capacious bosom for outré religious beliefs. The country was founded by those partially moved by the same. So it’s no surprise that from spiritualists and mediums to Freemasons, Wiccans, members of Ordo Templi Orientis or half a dozen other secret societies, a prevailing belief in life after death has engendered a certain mania for undiscovered, only partially revealed truths about the shadow play sometimes called reality. A reality where things that are easy to find and understand are easily dismissed, and where esoteric knowledge — the harder to find, the better — is prized.
Such was the business model that Herman Slater, along with his lover Ed Buczynski, put into play when, in the early 1970s on the edge of Brooklyn Heights, they opened a special kind of curio shop. The Warlock Shop, full of fairly standard hippie fare for the time — candles, herbs, incense and oils — also offered a smattering of books, and it was around these books that people, so-called occultists, cohered. So much so that by 1976 Slater was making enough to make a move for the big time, in this instance a down-market place in the upmarket New York neighborhood of Chelsea. Four blocks from the Chelsea Hotel, where one of Slater’s more famous customers, Robert Mapplethorpe, lived with punk priestess and poet Patti Smith for a time, the shop, renamed the Magickal Childe, was a perfect vehicle for playing out Slater’s hard-core beliefs in the occult.
What made him unique is that while he was the best-known warlock in NYC, he was also deeply malign.
Beliefs that were framed by being born poor and Jewish in 1938 and pretty quickly sussing out that Christianity and anti-Semitism were making it even harder for him to be poor and Jewish. After college and a succession of crap jobs, Slater, laid low by serious health problems, had a vision while on the mend in a hospital: He rose from the bed only to see his body still in the bed. Lots of deep reading on out-of-body experiences quickly followed, along with all manner of things down the rabbit hole, ending with Slater leading a coven. As in: a collection of witches and warlocks. Which was not nearly as comical as it might sound. Not comical at all, in fact, but deadly earnest. And no Technicolor cute à la Bewitched, but much more a Rosemary’s Baby creepiness.
Such was the earnestness that the late head of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, told me over dinner in San Francisco during an earlier interview, “I get so tired of these, let’s call them ‘occultniks.’ They’re so serious and humorless that they’re just really hard to take.” That seriousness and humorlessness might have been a result of time and location: LaVey’s stomping grounds in California were a skosh more forgiving than Slater’s East Coast climes. Slater’s personality didn’t exactly help things either. Described by onetime friend and three-time employee (yes, Slater hired and fired him three times) Alan Cabal as “indomitable and ornery” — and dubbed “Horrible Herman” by many others, according to writer George Knowles — Slater’s bite cut a little deeper and darker than personality “quirks.”
According to former Los Angeles Times reporter and author Dean Kuipers, Slater’s deep connection to black magic and his well-publicized penchant for putting curses on people for a price made him so much more than just a bookstore owner. “What made him unique is that while he was the best-known warlock in NYC, he was also deeply malign,” Kuipers says. Lots of people practice magic, he explains, “to increase their power at the expense of others, in the best case, and as evil, in the worst. No one involved in the occult wants to expose that side of the arts, I think.”
Or the fact that sometimes savvy business moves appear questionable if looked at closely. What with the Magickal Childe’s selling of fictional books as historically accurate (specifically, H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon) and the legal battles that ensued over that practice plus unpaid tax bills, Slater and his store seemed like an ideal focal point for bad vibes galore. In The Ultimate Evil, investigative journalist Maury Terry weaves a web of relationships that connects various occult groupings and the Son of Sam killings through the Magickal Childe’s customer database.
So through the late ’70s and the 1980s in New York, a city in the grips of heroin, financial collapse and crack, it could have been that Slater was just a man for his times. Times that screeched to a halt in 1992, when Slater succumbed to that other scourge of the era: AIDS.
And the Magickal Childe? Made it without Slater until 1999, when it closed. Rumors of its reincarnation notwithstanding.