Words Vaneesha Ritchie
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“I want it to be a place for people to come and come back to and build a connection to and weave into their own histories.”
Where do curious people go? How have people made sense of their world in the past, and how do they do it today? Welcome to Treadwells. Christina Oakley Harrington opened her bookshop in 2002. It was named Treadwells, after her grandmother, and its inception marked a point in Christina’s life where knowledge, ancestry, belief, strength and a desire to share and pass these things on all came together. Christina’s father worked for the United Nations in the programme for developing nations, so the young Christina, brought up in West Africa and Southeast Asia, was exposed every day to the local forms of what Western culture might see as esoteric, or even pagan, practices and beliefs.
“In Liberia, the religions are very localised and un-named, and my exposure was via playmates and through my family’s beloved cook and housekeeper Daniel, who took us to his village numerous times. We also had Liberian friends who kindly took us to parts of the country where most Westerners weren’t interested in going, to ceremonies for local village communities. The first religious ceremony I ever remember – in my entire life – was in upcountry Liberia in a tiny village by the edge of the scrubby outlands, from where there appeared a hundred girls marked up in white chalk. It was the final stage of the girls’ initiation into womanhood, when they came out of seclusion to be welcomed back to the community. There was dancing, drumming and the elders were in a state of trance possession and wearing masks. I was quite disturbed but fascinated, and clung tightly to my mother’s hand. In Burma, we lived in Rangoon and went with Burmese family friends to many, many pagodas, monasteries, shrines and community religious festivals.”
Eventually, when she was in her mid-teens, the family moved to the USA, where Christina noticed that, compared to the environments she’d grown up in, there was a certain ‘lack’. There were, of course, the formal organised religions, and while some traces of pagan heritage could be still found, as with Halloween, it was the actions that had survived, while the underlying meanings hadn’t. As a compulsively curious individual, Christina found herself on a quest to find meaning in her new environment, searching for the kinds of threads that run through most ‘esoteric’ beliefs: nature, ancestry, tribalism, community, symbolism, a language of meaning, and meaning within meaning. It was a search for magic – something you can harness, that’s already there, but isn’t yours.
So Christina voraciously read whatever she could get her hands on and kept searching. Eventually, during one of those long, late night conversations at university, a friend told her about Wicca. This sounded like the ‘it’ that she had been looking for: so she packed her bags and moved to London.
As with many alternative belief systems or ‘sects’, there was a certain element of secrecy involved, and Christina had to feel her way around the fringes, finding the ‘ins’ and the clues: the little hidden gem of a bookshop providing a pointer, the meetings with a contact. Finally, her persistence paid off. She found her way to the ‘centre of the flower’ and became first an apprentice to Wicca, and eventually a Wiccan high priestess – a white witch. Sadly, magic and witchcraft don’t pay the rent! So she applied her trademark sense of curiosity to a day job of lecturer in medieval history at St Mary’s University College. Medieval art and culture are filled with rich symbolism and meanings hidden within meanings – the visible and the invisible. Christina became adept at understanding this particular era, interpreting the breadcrumb-trails of codes and symbols to arrive at a more complete understanding of how people thought at the time. Coincidentally, the study of esoteric beliefs and practices was having something of a boom at this point, at last being taken seriously as a genuine area for research and study.
One day, St Mary’s embarked on one of their restructuring drives, as universities are wont to do. And it was at this point in her life – with at least two demonstrable academic specialisms, a few good omens and a small inheritance from Grandmother Treadwell – that the bookshop was born. It wasn’t a straightforward birth. The young chap in the loans department of the bank was very sceptical about the long-term prospects for books, never mind bookshops – wasn’t it all going digital? But the plan was for more than ‘just’ a bookshop. It was to be a meeting place for practitioners and scholars, offering classes and lecture series, and a place in which like-minded and curious people could understand, communicate and experience rituals. It started in Covent Garden, with an orange box for a counter and volunteers to keep it open, but once again fate stepped in, or rents stepped up. Christina found herself drawn to Bloomsbury’s Store Street – situated near the Petrie Museum of Egyptology, the Folklore Society, Fitzroy Square, the British Museum, SOAS (the School of African Studies) and the rich seam of curious people who frequented the locale.
So, she mixed a great big potion, made a few incantations to the Moon on the third Tuesday of spring and – poof! – got a shop on Store Street. Ok, so that’s a fib; the truth is rather more prosaic, but she did get the shop, and people came. And that’s one of the surprising things about Christina and Treadwells: it’s not some kind of ‘cloud cuckoo land’ enterprise, but an extremely well organised and curated, research-rich resource providing history and information on anything you could possibly imagine (and plenty you can’t) about the beliefs and cultures of the world. It informs about magic and the occult, which are rooted in folklore and offer an alternative path to that of ‘Enlightenment’ rationalism. New Age, it is not: Christina is not of the school that believes that positive thinking can cure everything. She tells me that they often get people in the shop talking about how ill they feel and enquiring about books on healing. The staff ask gently if they have been to see their GP. To me this seemed (as one entirely clueless about occult matters) a contradiction, but as our conversation happily meandered I realised that the whole idea behind these fairly randomly grouped and quite disparate beliefs that are called esoteric is that they are quite willing to embrace what’s current and new; they don’t view it as a threat to their way of life or system of belief, but as a potential enhancement to their understanding of the world and the people living in it.
So what about the clientele? Who comes to Treadwells? “A very mixed bunch,” says Christina, ”but there are trends – like when Harry Potter was big in the early 2000s there was a lot of interest in magic. Interestingly, there is a strong feminist thread through many of these alternative beliefs which value the role of the female, unlike some strands of organised religions, which don’t; so we have a number of younger female participants who are seeking a strength from within themselves which is offered in alternative beliefs. So I’m pleased about that. My main wish is to ensure that we have what people need, or want, or are curious about, so that when have an interest, it doesn’t die on the vine.” With so much to find out about it’s hard to know where to start, but here are a few good recommendations for beginners: The Book of English Magic by Richard Heygate and Philip Carr-Gomm, The Secret Lore of London by John Matthews, and What is a Witch? by Pam Grossman. Asked what she wants for Treadwells in the future, Christina replies after some thought “Longevity. I want longevity for Treadwells. I want it to be a place for people to come and come back to and build a connection to and weave into their own histories.”