On an evening more fitting for hunting an ocean breeze than packing into stuffy City Council chambers, many of the town’s magic-shop owners and psychics turned up, Tuesday night, to discuss regulating the business of psychic readings.
The council’s subcommittee on ordinances and licenses listened to two hours of testimony from black-clad psychics, concerning the “fortune tellers” ordinance that was passed in 1998.
Owners of brand-new shops and those in town since the ’70s turned up to discuss the issue, along with readers from the Magic Parlor, Pyramid Books and The Oracle Chamber.
Only four shops in the city currently have the $25 license, with permission granted to each to license five readers.
As chair of the subcommittee, Joan Lovely says the law calls for only so many psychics per person in the city of Salem, and that many readers have been operating without a license for as long as 35 years.
Despite much mention of a harmonious feeling among those in the room, the readers seemed divided over whether to crack down on licensing or open the city to more psychic activity.
Psychic Doug Johnson, who is licensed through Pyramid Books, complained that his license states plainly he can only work from that one business.
“Psychics are drawn here,” he said. “Away from here, we’re a bunch of freaks.”
Johnson admitted that psychic reading is a business known for “attracting trouble,” partly because there is no objective criteria and no state license, like the one required for hairdressers.
Another concern was competition, every fall, from psychic fairs set up around the city in front of businesses that also offer readings and pay taxes year-round.
Sylvia Martinez, owner of the Goddess Treasure Chest on Essex Street, complained about the city’s blanket licenses granted for October events that, she said, take away from local businesses.
Christian Day, co-host of an annual Psychic Fair, said there is plenty of October business to go around and that psychic readings are big business for Salem.
“I say open it up. People come here even if they don’t believe in psychic readings,” he said. “Middle America shows up at our fair. It’s like buying a T-shirt or a tschatskis. You come to Salem, you get a reading.”
He complained that the ordinance was written as “a late-’90s, early-2000 attempt to de-witchify Salem.”
Several supported regulating the city’s psychics, however, expressing concern over the absence of background checks on readers, something required for individual license-holders that doesn’t currently exist with blanket licenses.
Salem Police Lieut. Andre Ouellette, investigator for the licensing board, asked that the ordinance have more “teeth,” so he could go after those in violation.
“Stiff fines are good for the city,” he said. “They could use the money.”
He proceeded to outline a sort of psychic mob operation, adding that some in the room are guilty of intimidating customers by putting a “cloud” over their head that can only be removed for the sum of $5,000.
Barbara Szafranski, of Angelica of the Angels on Central Street, cautioned that bringing in those who are not trained, perhaps more interested in making a quick buck, could hurt vulnerable people in search of a reading.
“You hold them in your hand,” she said. “Sometimes they are on the edge of collapse, marriages breaking up …”
Linda Weinbaum, who reads out of her home, admitted she had reported the discovery of dead birds on her porch that she perceived as threats from other readers. There were also others in the room too afraid to speak up, said Ouellette.
“You needed to hear this side of the story,” Ouellette told the Council.
Twenty years ago, anyone could read and it was a “fiasco,” he said, adding there were home invasions as part of the infighting.
“Everybody wants to come to Salem to be a reader,” said Ouellette. “You open it up to 20 and they’ll want 50. … Daily, weekly, every month I get a report of readers threatened with personal harm because of this going on between them. He added that one reader was forced to perform a “sexual act” to keep their job.
Shawn Poirier, who works with Day, offered to aid the police in doing background checks on those who read at their annual fair. Further suggestions by the Council included requiring the city’s readers to post their licenses, as well as a list of consumer’s rights and the phone number of the Better Business Bureau.
In the end, very little was solved, apart from the commonly expressed desire that everyone just get along.
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