“I’ll be right with you,” says Timothy Stewart, before padding off to excitedly explain a series of crystals to a customer. Crystals mean a lot to Stewart. He believes they are alive. He believes they have the ability to change your life.
Stewart works the floor at the Aquarian, a bookshop skirting the very edge of the Fan. But only a corner of the shop is dedicated to books; the walls are lined with oils, herbs, and of course, cases of crystals.
“I really do believe that they’re alive,” Stewart said. “But what’s really interesting is: quartz crystals are in radios to tune them, and they’re also in memory chips. They literally hold memory and they’re tuning devices.”
Stewart sounded shy on the phone, but in person, he’s vibrant and enthusiastic about his job. With a colorful scarf around his neck and shards of rose quartz wrapped tightly in an impressionistic, obtuse pendant, Stewart can tap into a seemly endless library of information about the wares he sells — metaphysical “tools,” as he calls them.
Amethyst to link with the divine. Tigers eye for “mastery of the physical plane.” Rose quartz for self-love.
“There’s a quartz crystal called the Lemurian seed crystal that’s fabled to be of Lemurians,” Stewart said, referencing the mythological lost city of Lemuria, similar to Atlantis. “They have lines on them, like a barcode. That could have been the civilization coding the crystals with their knowledge, and they say if you rub them, you download that into you.”
For 35 years the Aquarian sat tucked out of view at the edge of Carytown, in a barren parking lot across from Walgreens. The shop was comprised of three spaces in two adjacent buildings. But with the new year came a big move to a vibrant brick building on W. Main. Not much has changed for the shop’s physical offerings — esoteric literature and magical trinkets — but without the extra space, their nighttime events have become much more intimate, according to employee Nick Smith.
Most evenings the Aquarian is closed to general foot traffic and the employees get to work moving around boxes and displays, clearing an area and setting up chairs. The events can be almost anything: classes, meditation groups or ritual celebrations. Some recent examples, according to Smith, include Stewart’s crystal-gridding class, where attendees learn how to mix and match crystal energy for their needs (he uses music as a metaphor, organized harmony), and owner John Oliver’s Feng Shui guide for 2019.
Besides the general employees are a whole host of psychic readers who will meet one on one with customers to engage in a number of traditions including dream analysis, palm reading, tarot card reading and more.
Stewart describes he and his coworkers as “cosmic librarians,” each with their own specialty. He thinks of each of their niches as “a book on the shelf.”
“When we come together and work, we hear so much of each other,” Stewart said. “You never know if something’s real or not, but if something comes up, you might be able to pull it out and say: this is what I know. It might resonate.”
One of the employed psychic readers is Nick Lasky. He sports long hair, often pulled back in a bun, his fingers heavily anointed by rings. He recommended a meeting time of 3:33 and appeared on-the-dot, amid the colorful tapestries which graced the original storefront. Lasky’s “book on the shelf” is astrology, which he incorporates into his sessions. But he also claims his trade has larger applications.
For the uninitiated, the application of astrology involves the interpretation of 12 “signs” which are determined by the stars. The tradition attributes each sign a series of “energies” or “archetypes.” Planets and other astronomical bodies are also given attributes, which can intersect with the 12 signs. Though found commonly online and in newspaper horoscopes, Lasky takes the discipline a step further, including predicting the future.
According to Lasky, the planet Jupiter, which has spent the past year in the sign of Scorpio, has transitioned into the sign of Sagittarius.
“Jupiter is the archetype of ‘can’t stop talking,’ ‘gotta grow.’ It wants everything to be bigger,” Lasky said. “The sign of Scorpio… it’s about the mysteries, it’s about the taboo things, it’s about the dark, it’s about the sex. All the things in the shadows.”
Lasky credits Jupiter’s involvement with a specific astrological sign as evidence that a sincere focus will develop around the sign’s specific “energies.”
As Jupiter moves into Sagittarius, which represents wild travel and freedom, Lasky predicts a national and worldwide focus on immigration, the refugee crisis, and the legal system.
“This next year will probably be a more optimistic time for a lot of people,” he said.
More often than not, Lasky is serving and entertaining the customers who come through the door of the shop.
“The Aquarian bookshop is the premier spiritual hub of Richmond and central Virginia,” he said.
While Lasky’s primary role at the Aquarian is as a psychic reader, he also identifies as a Reikien crystal healer, an ancient Japanese tradition, and will sometimes play the gong or singing bowl for people who are not feeling well. But he also leads and even participates in the many of the Aquarian’s classes and rituals. His most major class is the Society of Awakening Souls, a guided meditation session he founded as a student at the University of Virginia.
“A spiritual awakening club,” as Lasky described it.
He said the group would host guest speakers, meditate, and even traveled to an Ashram, a sort of spiritual monastery in Indian traditions. After arriving at the Aquarian a few years ago, Lasky brought the group with him and reimagined it as a weekly event, open to anybody.
For the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year as recognized on the pagan wheel of the year calendar, Lasky will often dress up as Santa Claus and participate in numerous rituals. They light hundreds of candles, sometimes utilizing the British witchcraft tradition of the bone ladder, where they form circles around a Christmas tree with the middle circle spinning as fast as they can.
“We are working with the spirilic energy, the spirilic laws of nature,” Lasky said.
One year somebody won $500 “just for showing up.” Another year the group chased out “The Fear of the Year” — somebody dressed in a monster costume who sat in the corner for the beginning of the festivities.
“Everybody in the circle got sticks,” Lasky said, “and after the moment [of lighting the candles] we chased The Fear of the Year out of the classroom, screaming and brandishing our sticks.”
It’s nearly impossible to speak concisely about the Aquarian; it’s a melting pot of so many traditions, and offers a wide variety of activities for its patrons.
“You have the Nordic tradition, you have the Buddhist approach, you have Pagan, you have Wiccan, you have witches, you have Hoodoo, Voodoo, you have all this New Age stuff, and the workers of light [Light Workers], and you have Santeria, you have Judaism and Kabbalah,” Lasky said.
The mixing of so many cultures is compelling, resulting in a place where anybody can tailor a custom spirituality that works for them. It makes for a cast of happy, interesting people spending time on the grounds of the Aquarian.
But there is still an important question to ask: where do you draw the line? At what point is the Aquarian offering spiritual guidance, and when is it just a business with a profit margin? Can those two things coexist?
When Smith started at the Aquarian almost five years ago, he explained, he was experiencing a difficult life crossroads and found the community necessary to his personal growth. His mindset about his role at the shop has been primed by this formative experience, and he has some ideas to clear up the store’s role in the community.
“Everything is a ritual,” Smith remembered a teacher at an Aquarian class once saying.
“[A ritual] allows them to refocus and recenter at any given point in the day,” Smith said, “It gives them the confidence to do those things because they recognize: in order to achieve whatever it is I’m trying to strive for, I have to accomplish this first, this small, sometimes menial task.”
We have morning rituals — coffee, run, breakfast — which we follow day in and day out. Humans are naturally drawn to patterns and symbols, feeling centered and empowered through routine. From lucky socks to the popular stage tradition of not speaking the word Macbeth in a theater [you call it “the Scottish play” -theater geek ed.], even down to using the same coffee mug every morning, our lives are awash in rituals.
When it comes to crystals, for instance, Smith identifies them to customers as an external reminder to achieve their goals — but not a “shortcut.”
Smith said he never promises the crystal will be the ultimate source of change in their lives, but when people come in with problems or changes they want to make, he will offer advice and talk with them about whatever they’re going through.
“You’re not trying to hand them truth,” he said. “You’re trying to help them discover their own truth.”
To Smith, the act of buying a crystal is the act of becoming vulnerable by expressing to another human being that you need help. It’s about talking through a plan with somebody who cares, and it’s about taking away a reminder that you’ve expressed the decision to change, and you have the autonomy to do it.
“When people come and get readings consistently, buy a bunch of stuff at the shop, and then their attendance at the shop tapers off and eventually, you don’t see them again, that’s one of my favorite things,” Smith said.
Smith said that, although he works at a business, he has a “severe responsibility” to help people through to the end, until they don’t need him anymore.
Another example Smith cited are the grief candles sold at the shop. The candles burn for seven days straight, and they offer a period of time where a person can reflect on their severe loss, facing it rather than ignoring it.
“When people lose somebody, we need something greater than ourselves to get through it a lot of the time. People who don’t [get that] end up being callous,” Smith said. “They harden themselves in a way that helps them get through that moment, but then other interaction in the future might be less — they have walls.”
Smith said his favorite part, and his ultimate goal of working at the Aquarian, is to give people the opportunity to talk, and “discuss what they can’t talk about anywhere else.”
“Yeah it’s strange, yeah it’s super weird, and oftentimes you can’t prove that any of it works,” Smith said. “But I can tell you for a fact I’ve seen those things have an effect on people’s lives.”
Top Photo by Benjamin West