On a busy summer afternoon in Dinkytown, people rush past the small purple storefront tucked between a post office and a head shop, oblivious to the magic within.
Magus Books and Herbs will be celebrating its 20-year anniversary this September. Joseph Amara, executive vice president of Magus, said the store is popular with a unique crowd whose loyalty has kept the store running for two decades.
“Specifically, we are for explorers of consciousness and connection to the universe,” he said.
Amara and another employee will also take over ownership of the store on its 20th anniversary.
Despite its proximity to the University of Minnesota campus, many students have never heard of the store.
“I’ve never been there. I walk by it all the time, but that’s about it,” said Emily Hoyt, University art senior.
The store offers books, herbs and ceremonial tools often not found in major retail stores, Amara said.
Aside from the hand-carved wands, voodoo puppets and cast-iron cauldrons displayed throughout the store, perhaps Magus’ most memorable asset is its employees.
“Magus is a weird conglomeration of people doing different things,” said Andrew Lane, a part-time employee.
Lesley Rushton discovered Magus several years ago as a student on campus and recently visited the store with her sister-in-law to buy incense and sage smudge sticks, which are thought to clear unwanted energy from a room.
She said she visits the store because the staff doesn’t push a particular religion or belief on the customers.
A few years ago she was intrigued when she saw crosses and Bibles in the store alongside the incense.
“When you think about the outside and you hear about Magus … you think, ‘Maybe it’s all Wiccan stuff.’ But you come inside, and it’s a whole bunch of stuff,” she said.
Amara said the store embraces every religion, from “Christianity to Zoroastrianism.”
“Anything that helps somebody discover what brings meaning into their lives and deepen it,” he said.
Tammy Helms, a tarot reader at Magus and one of its few full-time employees, said Magus is a place that needs to be experienced in order to be fully understood.
“You can’t describe Magus,” she said.
The wall of herbs
The store’s most reputable section is what staff members admiringly refer to as “The Wall,” a collection of more than 600 herbs stored in glass jars on shelves spanning one side of the shop.
Helms said the large majority of her tarot clients also come in to buy herbs.
“It’s kind of surprising. You would think that these little girlies that come down would be checking out the jewelry, but they don’t. They come right to the wall,” she said.
Master herbalist Liz Johnson dabbled in herbalism while attending college, but decided to pursue it seriously after watching her friend’s heart attack misdiagnosis result in major bypass surgery.
“I watched this person screaming in agony while they dealt with their health issue and thought, ‘Surgery is wonderful. Penicillin is great. There has to be another option’,” she said.
When Johnson arrived at Magus, the store already offered about 150 herbs. She used her knowledge and training to expand the ayurvedic and Chinese lines, while creating an extensive Western herb collection.
Vanilla bean and coriander are sold alongside herbs like cat’s claw bark and horny goat weed.
For students interested in trying a few lesser known herbs, Johnson recommends starting with what Western herbalism classifies as adaptogens.
“Adaptogens are herbs that are thought to help your body deal with stressors, whether that’s the stress of breaking up with somebody [or] the stress of studying for a big exam,” she said.
Tarot reading is a part of everyday life at Magus. Like the knowledge offered in the books lining the shelves, tarot is meant to be used as a tool to understand life and explore one’s options.
Helms and Annie Zimbel, the tarot readers, have their own reading style and card interpretation.
“When I do my readings, I put out to the universe that I want the kind of clients that really want to help themselves. I don’t like them when they come back every single week,” Zimbel said. “I give them enough information that they can start clearing things up.”
Helms, on the other hand, reads into the smaller details of people’s lives.
Kathryn Knutsen, a mother of two, has been coming to Magus for a year to have her cards read. Sometimes she stops in alone, other times she brings her boyfriend for a relationship reading.
“We just came back here two weeks ago and got another reading, and that was even more interesting,” she said. “It was like dead on. It was pretty crazy.”
A history of Magus
The founder of Magus, Roger Williamson, grew up in Coventry, England, where his mother raised him with a background in basic ceremonial magic, astral projection and spirit evocation. He moved to London as a young man before winding up in the U.S.
Before opening Magus in 1992, Williamson worked in a corporate office but felt unhappy there, he said.
He started a used occult book catalog service out of his basement, selling books from his personal library he brought from England at night.
He always had an affection for Dinkytown because of its “bohemian” feel, he said. One day he saw a rental sign in a Dinkydale Mall window, and soon after the store opened in a small space in the back corner of the mall.
“You could probably put your arms out and touch all the walls,” Williamson said. “I had about 10 packs of incense, three tarot decks and several boxes of used books, and that was just how I started it.”
Amara, who joined the business within the first few months, said, “You couldn’t do that quite like today. … I think the world was a kinder, gentler place back in ’92. I think it was easier to start a small business.”
Williamson was able to expand the store a few times within the mall as business picked up, and the store amassed a loyal customer following before it eventually wound up in its current location across the street.
Although running a small business is tough, Williamson said he has enjoyed the ride.
“I mean, you sit around, you buy pretty much everything you really enjoy. You’re burning incense and playing music all day. It’s not a bad way to earn a living …,” he said.
At noon on Sept. 1, Williamson will retire, and Amara and Johnson will take over the company.
The Magus mission
No matter what people come to Magus for, Williamson said he hopes they leave feeling empowered to take command of their destiny.
“Reincarnation might be true, past lives might be true,” he said. “Or maybe this is the only time that you get to interact with this universe. So what are you going to do with it? Are you going to be worried about where you might have been and where you might be going? Or are you going to enjoy the journey?
“Not that I have an opinion, of course,” Williamson said with a smile.