I have to admit, Salem scared the bejeesus out of me when I was a kid. As a devil-fearing Catholic child, I wasn’t that comfortable with the proximity of all those witches, real and rumored.
Then my own children came along, a few years behind Harry Potter, and we discovered the heroic side of wizardry. I recently found myself searching Salem for activities to tide over my little Potter fans who can hardly wait for Universal Studios to open a second Potter-themed park this summer.
What we found was some magic amid the historic Witch City, and plenty of non-witch activities to keep us busy.
Just steps from the Peabody Essex Museum stands Wynotts Wands, a store billed as an authentic old European wand shop, which comically claims to have been established in 1692 though it opened in 2012.
Walking into Wynotts is like entering a Harry Potter book. It’s delightfully dim, with a flying broomstick hanging overhead and a ladder stretching toward tall shelves stacked with wand boxes.
A moving photo in the front window shows Kevin Wynott (the employee who inspired the name) in his full wizard regalia, with his long beard and hair. Inside, he greeted us beside an old cash register with a stately quill pen used for signing credit card receipts.
Owner Tim Maguire wasn’t originally into Harry Potter — he was into tourism — but he spins a magical tale of the events that nudged him down Diagon Alley. He’s been running ghost tours of Salem and selling souvenirs from his shop adjacent to Wynotts, called Remember Salem. Muggle families like mine kept coming in, asking for Potter-themed activities in Salem. One day, a homeless man wandered into his shop and offered to sell him a wand for lunch money. Maguire bought it. Around the same time, he was sitting on a bench on Boston Common, and an envelope blew to his feet. Inside were two tickets to the Harry Potter exhibit then showing at the Museum of Science in Cambridge. Well, he had to try it. He went and became “a fantatical fan,” he said.
Inspired by the idea of making real, wooden wands — something tangible and sturdy amid the lore and loot to be found in Salem — Maguire hired his own wandmaker. A Salem local, the wandmaker now works in the basement of the shop, crafting wands in 24 styles for different characters in the J. K. Rowling series.
Next door, Remember Salem sells a huge array of licensed Potter paraphernalia. My kids got to try a cold bottle of “butterbeer,” like they would at The Leaky Cauldron, and take their chances digging into boxes of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, the all-too-comprehensive boxes of jellybeans invented by Rowling and made by JellyBelly. (Yes, as in the books, even vomit and earwax are represented along with more palatable offerings.)
And behind the shops, a space known as Crown and Shield Hall now hosts wizard-themed parties for little princesses, pirates, or Hobbit or Game of Thrones fans. (Keep it clean, gang.) Potter parties come complete with sorting ceremonies and potions classes.
We also discovered a tantalizing lunch nearby at the Gulu-Gulu Cafe, a stylish space with exposed brick walls and ductwork, and plentiful art on the walls. It also has an impressive array of beer and wine, listed on tall blackboard menus above a stately bar. On this kid-centric trip, though, our focus was on food; we were drawn by the crepes. The menu offers build-your-own crepes with a vast array of sweet or savory offerings — from apple butter, caramel sauce, and Greek yogurt to manchego, habanero cheese, and artichokes. The kids both went for the s’mores crepe and practically licked their plates clean. The crepes were a welcome treat but much needed by the time they arrived; the wait was ungodly in the rush of the Saturday afternoon crowd.
Also worth the wait was a trip to the Peabody Essex Museum to see an exhibit that had to be seen (and heard) to be believed. In the Céleste Boursier-Mougenot exhibit FreePort [No. 007] colorful finches flit and fly across an aviary, intermittently perching on amped-up electric guitars and clanging cymbals. The resulting sound is very organic, surprisingly melodic, and certainly entertaining.
The popular exhibit had just opened when we visited and the line was long; now, timed tickets are sold to cycle guests through every 20 minutes. But we got by on the kindness of strangers. A museum docent in line ahead of us offered to save our spot so we could dash around and see more of the museum. We seized upon her offer and were glad we did. Since the newly expanded museum opened in 2003, it has been infused with personality and is particularly fun for children, who get in free and can stay and create their own masterpieces in the Art & Nature Center.
My kids couldn’t resist the current exhibit “Beyond Human: Artist-Animal Collaborations,” a show that includes funny and not always warm and fuzzy works, including ant farms and a video of a performance artist imitating a moth, flapping at the light. A particular favorite was a film loop showing chickens and pigs matter-of-factly taking up residence in a house. It had my son in stitches.