By Jesse Roman
SALEM — The Witch's Hide, a shop on Essex Street, was open for seven years before it began offering psychic readings in June.
To launch the new service, owner Deliela Bettencourt filled out a form, went before the Licensing Board, passed a criminal background check, paid $50 and got a fortuneteller's license for her shop.
Just four years ago, that would have been difficult, because of a strict cap on the number of psychic licenses the city allowed. That all changed three years ago.
"We removed all the caps, changed the residency requirement to one year and charged a $50 fee," said John Casey, a member of the city's Licensing Board for more than 15 years.
As a result, the number of shops in Salem with a psychic license has increased sixfold since 2006 — from four to 24. Each store has the ability to employ up to five individual psychics. At last count there were about 75 psychics licensed to work in stores in Salem. There are also 17 individual psychics licensed to work as private contractors, more than twice as many as before.
"Now, walk down the street, it's like the strip in Las Vegas. Every single store has a psychic in it," says Barbara Szafranski, the owner of Angelica of the Angels and Angels Landing in Salem, a longtime license holder. "They walk around town in weird clothing because they think they have to look weird to be a psychic.
"I predicted three or four years ago when they took the cap off, this would happen. The city has become a haven for people who want to do readings, and I don't mean good readings."
Szafranski, who was an outspoken critic of lifting the cap on psychic licenses, said her business has dropped 85 percent since the new law passed in 2007 allowing virtually unlimited competition. Before the change, a typical Saturday in October would bring 60 customers; now she says she's lucky to get 10.
Christian Day, who owns occult-based stores Hex and Omen, both in downtown Salem, says he's the largest employer of psychics in the city. He fought for the cap to be lifted three years ago and says, "I think it's absolutely been for the best."
Day says 80 percent of his income at Omen, which opened this year, is driven by psychic readings.
"The ordinance opened the door for me, and in my opinion it's been a boon for the city," he said. "It's a form of entertainment that reaches across all of these different markets."
Day, who is a Destination Salem board member, says internal marketing data shows that 85 percent of Salem visitors surveyed said modern witches were an interest.
"There are a lot more psychics along Essex Street than ever before. At one time," he notes, "Las Vegas was nothing but one casino and a zoot-suit fair. We want to be a destination for psychics."
'Cuts both ways'
Diana McKanas, who owns the Salem Psychic Center and has been a practicing psychic in Salem for about 30 years, says the new ordinance allowing more psychics "cuts both ways."
It has made it easier for her to hire psychics and expand her business, she says, but it's also paved the way for people who aren't truly psychic to set up shop.
The licensing cap "blocked a lot of people from coming in from all over the country during Halloween and looking to make a quick buck," McKanas said. "In my observation, these people ... are not real psychics."
Szafranski shares her concerns.
"We're dealing with people's lives. Sometimes they come to you and they are suicidal, they are lost and looking for guidance. I'm very upset by it," she said, "and not just because of the money."
At the end of the day, however, McKanas — who says her business is booming — thinks the market will sort itself out.
"You could go get a license to be a psychic, so be it," she said. "But if you can't do the work, you can't be in business."
Day notes that there's good and bad in any business.
"There is no cap on restaurants," he said, "and some really suck. Let the buyer beware. Go to Yelp or Trip Advisor and see if it's a good restaurant or a good psychic. I'm not a fan of the nanny state."
Despite the influx of licensed psychics, it's not clear that the psychic sector has become a bigger slice of Salem's economy.
"We have added a lot of retail stores and restaurants in Salem the last two or three years," said Rinus Oosthoek, executive director of the Salem Chamber of Commerce, which lists eight psychic-related businesses as members. "There are a lot more non-psychic and witch-related businesses now ... but percentage-wise, yes, I think it is (smaller)."
Salem enacted its first ordinance to regulate fortunetellers in 1930.
Back then, said Casey, the Licensing Board member, you needed to be a resident for two years and pay a $5 fee.
In the 1970s, however, things were getting out of hand, so the city decided to limit the number of readers to five, Casey said. The ones who already had licenses were grandfathered in — about 11 psychics — but the tiny cap virtually stopped new psychics from obtaining a license.
"The police were very strict. My business was monitored, and the people who worked for me needed a picture ID with their license displayed," said McKanas, who got her psychic license before the cap was imposed and was allowed to keep it after the rule change.
The strict cap remained until 2007, when the city decided to eliminate it, hoping, in part, to cut down on the number of illegal, unlicensed psychics in Salem.
"It is the same as any other business, and it must have the same regulation," Casey said. "We have hundreds of thousands of visitors, and we must protect our visitors. We need to know who's out there and what they're doing."
The new licensing process includes a criminal background check, a check into consumer complaints, whether the business is in good standing with the secretary of state and often some light testimony in front of the Licensing Board.
"We found very few places (with psychic ordinances) when we were looking for a model to use here," said Elizabeth Rennard, Salem's city solicitor. The city eventually based its new law on San Francisco's.
Not surprisingly, Bettencourt of Witch's Hide is applauding the move that allowed her to hire psychics for her shop.
While she's sure it will increase traffic to the store, she says the decision to offer readings was not a financial one.
"We take it very seriously here," she said. "It's not an entertainment thing. Some people go in looking for a real answer."
BY THE NUMBERS
45 — No. of gift and retail stores downtown, 2007*
18 — No. of "witch-related" stores, 2007*
4 — No. of stores licensed to offer psychic readings, 2006
24 — No. of stores licensed to offer psychic readings, 2010
90 — No. of psychics licensed, 2010 (approximate)
3 — No. of licenses given for psychic fairs, 2010
*Source: Salem Redevelopment Authority, Downtown Salem Retail Market Study, 2007. Other figures are from Salem Licensing Board.