Geraldine and Bali Beskin

Mother and daughter Geraldine and Bali Beskin own the world’s oldest independent esoteric bookshop. The Atlantis Bookshop in London was founded in 1922 and has had a considerable impact on modern Paganism and Witchcraft. The Witches’ Almanac had the privilege of interviewing Geraldine Beskin as they mark their 100th anniversary in business.

What is it like having a 100-year-old business? Tell us about the bookshop?

The Atlantis Bookshop on Museum Street in London is in the heart of the city, next to the British Museum. This is where the streets are narrow and the architecture is quaint as most of it is between 150 and 300 years old. The street signs don’t match, the police pass by on sunny days up on their fine horses as they exercise them. Tourists from all over the world drink in the two old pubs, eat fish and chips and visit us in the most magical shop in London. We suit our surroundings as we, too, are little and cute. But as they see our besoms—our broomsticks—outside, they begin to realise we are different. During 2022 the huge gold balloons showing 100 began to tell our story as we were celebrating our centenary as sellers of magic, Witchcraft, and everything from alchemy to Zoroastrianism, to generations of people.

Does an old bookshop selling magical items feel incongruous in modern London?

Bali and I are very proud of our past but don’t live in it. We are surrounded by wonderfully designed books in jolly colours with amazing covers. The virtually universal acceptance of the existence of magic, the power of spells, and the benefits of mediation and good living have made publishers sit up and take notice of the power of the Pagan purchasers. TikTok and other social media have demonstrated to us all what to do and how to do it. I must admit sometimes I think they cannot be serious—but they are.

Atlantis Bookshop was founded in 1922. Does it have any ties to the occult revival going on at that time?

Our building was built in 1888, the very year The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn began—just about a mile away! Those esoteric pioneers would have seen the shop being built and we like to think they would have pushed the door open using the handles we use today! As we are 50 yards from the British Museum which housed the British Library where they all studied magical manuscripts, and there seems to have always been a café next door, it is quite likely they trod our floorboards. We have the original oil painting of Samuel MacGregor Mathers—one of the three founders of the Golden Dawn hanging in the shop with some original working tools from the Order.

How did magic become your family business?

Our family is unique as we are known to be third and fourth generations of Witches. My father was from a different line to my mother and having ‘blood’ from two hereditary lines is most unusual. We have seen fashions change in the Craft of course and not least the status of ‘Hereditaries’ like Bali and I, as at one stage if you weren’t Gardnerian or Alexandrian you were dismissed. The family has never been bothered by that as we just stay true to what we know and get on with it. My practice is different from my mother’s and Bali’s is different in turn. Not in ways that matter but in the little touches. One of us can sprinkle fairy dust on a cheese sandwich and make it seem like a feast while the other of us—me—is likely to have run out of matches. I have often told the tale of opening my box of kit and seeing with fresh eyes how I had let my standards slip. When was the last time I had ironed that cloth? Polished those candlesticks? Put the incense in order? When I’m tidy, I’m very tidy. I then clean and prepare things I will need on a need-to-use basis for a whole year as a reminder not to be so lazy! As Doreen Valiente said to me, “Only your best is good enough, Geraldine.” She was a darling and my mother and she would talk the afternoon away many atime.

So many people have connections to it or have heard of itit’s almost like a pilgrimage. Can you explain for our readers why The Atlantis Bookshop has an important place in modern magical history?

The Atlantis Bookshop’s history is unique and important in the last 100 years of the Western Mysteries. It was begun by two earnest young men who joined the Theosophical Society, as everyone did back in the day. It was the place to meet and discuss everything with men and women. One of our young men became captivated by the mystical notes of the TS and travelled the world seeking gurus and holy men. He was Paul Brunton and he more or less settled in the USA and people sat at his itchy feet for many years and read his many books. The other chap was Michael Houghton, also known as Michael Juste when he published his poetry. He stayed behind and carried on with Atlantis and knew absolutely everybody. Manly P Hall visited during his world tour. Israel Regardie revisited us in the 1980s and spent time in our basement complaining of the cold. Bali insists she had lunch with him as I was pregnant with her at the time! The visionary artist Austin Osman Spare was a friend of Michael Houghton’s and I found the first two images in my collection by him in the store room in the 1970s. I curated my first exhibition of his work in 1987 and Bali and I have had four more shows of his work so far. Watch this space!

Tell us about the space itself. What is it like? Does it feel like it holds onto the magic of the past?

We are a small shop with a smaller room in the basement but that little space holds enormous religious significance. It is where Michael Houghton allowed Gerald Gardner and his coven to meet. There had been an enormous scandal during World War 2 when a very good Spiritualist Medium named Helen Duncan was so accurate she was presumed to be a danger to state security and she was tried as a Witch in the highest court in the land. That put the word back into people’s minds and Gardner had to meet clandestinely here on Museum Street as Witchcraft was illegal in England until 1951.

Witchcraft is the only religion the United Kingdom has given to the world and Bali and I are so very proud of the role Michael and the other brave pioneers played in continuing it at potentially great personal cost. The Gardner Room is used for workshops, art exhibitions and is open every day for people to enjoy. We have a little Cabinet of Curiosities in there and during the Centennial year we displayed a crystal ball owned by someone who took part in the legendary ritual to repel Hitler in 1939. Gardner and his friends were too old to be in the Forces but active service can take many forms.

What other magical giants of history have had connections with The Atlantis Bookshop?

Mention has to be made of Aleister Crowley as he was another of Michael’s friends. He was very honest about his life as a sexual being, a poet, the best magician of the 20th century, appalling and funny, climber of K2—the rival to Everest as the highest mountain in the world—and so much more besides. Our little publishing house, Neptune Press, produced an edition of his 777 in the 1950s and we did some reprints in the 1970s with ‘groovy’ typefaces. He inherited a small fortune when he was 21 and spent it travelling the world, studying magic and mysticism with the peoples of many lands, as they actually knew what they were talking about. He came down to Earth with a bump when the cash ran out so became a prolific author to try and keep the idea of Crowleyanity—loosely the Law of Thelema, the Law of Do what Thou Wilt—alive. Seventy-five years after his death, love him or hate him, everyone has an opinion of him so it kind of worked! He would have been so embarrassing to go to the pub with but so deeply fascinating, too.

A painting of Mathers, a room used as a covenstead by Gardnerthose are significant representations of the connection between the magic practiced today and its modern forebears. Are there any others? 

Another item we have is the crystal ball owned by Dion Fortune. She wrote Mystical Qabala which is the clearest book on the subject you could ever read, several books on magic and quite a few novels. What makes her important still is that she taught people, so by the time she came to write her books, she knew the questions people wanted to have answered. Dion Fortune and members of her Society of Inner Light are also key as some of the people who put our beloved Glastonbury back on the map. It was they who tried so hard to reawaken the spirit of Albion, the land of King Arthur, the home of the Grail, and told everyone that Glastonbury, the Isle of Avalon, is the mystical heart of Britain.

Is there a particular kind of magical customer you cater to?

We treat all our customers as equals so have never elevated one group above another. In the eyes of the Gods we are all one and if our hearts are pure we are given their attention and protection. We love people who are just setting out on their esoteric journey as they ask the hardest questions! None of us know it all and never, ever be scared to ask, whether  you are attending a Zoom meeting or a ‘live’ gathering—or buying a book from a shop. We don’t know what we know until we need to give an answer so it keeps us on our toes! I have lectured variously in the States, Canada, Australia and Europe and sometimes a shy person has asked something that has us all scratching our heads. No one starts anything because they know all about it so keep reading and you will be more confident and be pleased that you can help someone else.

Thank you so much for chatting with us! What last words do you have for our readers?

Bali and I wish you all very well. We hope you are of good cheer and take great pleasure in the miracle of Life in all its forms from the grass growing through the paving stones to us, the cleverest and necessarily most responsible organisms on our lovely Gaia. She knows best and every tiny green footprint we leave on her remarkable body is welcomed by her. Be kind to yourself and to others, walk towards the Light and know you are not alone but in very good company.

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