BRAINTREE — For decades, centuries even, skeptics have cast shade on ancient mysticism and New Age spiritual practices alike. A crystal-ball-wielding psychic? Hooey, they said. Palm readings and tarot cards? Who believes all that?
Apparently, a lot of people.
The COVID-19 pandemic breathed new life into the industry of “alternative spirituality,” where customers rely on readings and reiki-charged candles for guidance. Businesses sprinkled around Boston are experiencing a spike in interest and revenue that has yet to taper out.
Crowds flock to Open Doors, an eclectic Braintree storefront stuffed with chakra bowls, lion statuettes, and images of Egyptian deities. Open Doors has 18 readers, who saw 25 percent more business over the past 12 months than in prepandemic days, said owner Richard Lanza. Products that can be lumped into “all things metaphysical” are up 40 percent, too, as are books on Buddhism, Christianity, and the nature-based pagan religion of Wicca.
“We’ve all gone through a period of uncertainty financially, health-wise, and career-wise,” Lanza added. “People are reevaluating what their life is about, and they’re looking for answers and insight.”
Owners of four other spiritual reading businesses who spoke to the Globe said the same. When the pandemic first hit, people felt their lives upended. Millions stopped going out and reprioritized wellness over work. Stress and uncertainty drove unprecedented levels of mental illness, addiction, and suicide. But without “normal” life to lean on, many turned to a different method of coping: the supernatural.
And it’s not the first time. Now 73, Lanza saw similar, if smaller, surges in business around the 2008 economic recession, Sept. 11, and periods of political unrest. (Lanza also runs 11 yoga studios, which took a financial beating in the midst of lockdown.)
The uptick may also be due, in part, to boredom. With the pandemic limiting entertainment options, many were on the hunt for something fun to do, something new, something novel: video games, crafts, gardening, and of course, the infamous sourdough bread baking movement.
But Laura Domanico, a psychotherapist at the Whole Living Center in Cambridge, attributed the phenomenon to human nature. People instinctively search for a hand to hold in the dark, akin to the way many fall back on God and religion.
“In times of trouble, we look to things outside ourselves,” said Domanico, who incorporates astrology into her practice. “Things are chaotic, and our urge is to make sense of it.”
That need manifests in different ways for different customers.
Some at Open Doors stock up on essential oils and colorful stones like moldavite, which Lanza said can “clear away the debris” and “set the stage for new possibilities” in life. (Anita Jackson, a longtime Open Doors employee, said that whenever the virus surges, there is particular interest in the anxiety relief and luck manifestation crystal kits.) Others choose affirmations, incense, oracle decks, and herbs like golden seal root, devil’s claw, or sage. If that’s not enough, there are spell mixes and gemstone rings.
Then there are readers: psychics, mediums, and tarot card interpreters. In popular culture, they’re seen as a window into the future, though Heather Meehan, a medium and psychic at Open Doors, disputes that notion.
“I can only provide a snapshot into your life,” Meehan said while seated at a red table, scattered with tarot cards. During sessions, Meehan stares into the distance, telling clients she is interacting with lost grandmothers, fathers, friends of friends. She asks how they feel about jobs or relationships and offers advice in the pauses.
(At one point she told a Globe reporter: “I can see you pursuing some more creative work on the side.” Then later, she added, “I read that this is where you are, and this is where you’re headed. You have the power to change that. … It’s not fated.”)
Nestled beside a translucent pink crystal ball, Lori Grassey also navigates customers’ conscience with the help of tarot mythology and semiprecious stones. Her client base has ballooned since March 2020.
“Pandemic or no pandemic,” she said, “you can’t ignore your soul.”
And during the endless uncertainty of COVID, it seems more people grasped that concept — or grasped for it.
Take Mark Erdody, for example. He meditates, sets daily intentions, and regularly visits Open Doors — all of which he never did before last summer. He was living through a trauma in his family, as well as a vast and confusing public health crisis, and so sought out New Age guidance. Now the 54-year-old relies on his “spiritual toolbox”: readings, a Bulgarian UV light necklace, and sound therapy, where music is used to prompt self-reflection and healing.
“We have to do the shadow work to get down to our fears and to thrive,” he said.
Jo Petrie, a psychic, medium, and angel intuitive, or someone who channels messages from the angels, took in an influx of new clients these past two years. She closed her Hanover office in March 2020 and switched to phone or video readings. Half of her clients at Heartfelt Angel Connections now are new to psychics, and many see her remotely, she said.
Demand was so high in the first months of the pandemic that Petrie had to turn down requests or reschedule appointments to avoid “medium hangover,” a painful experience she feels after offering too many readings, too quickly. (Think of it like spiritual burnout.) She also works six parties a month on average now, compared to four before the pandemic.
Petrie sees a connection between her higher demand for her services and the mounting death toll during COVID. The virus created millions of bereaved families, searching for a way to say goodbye to those who they lost in isolation.
“People were dying, dying, dying from COVID and for other reasons,” Petrie said. “So I was doing a lot of mediumship connecting to loved ones that would say, ‘Hey, I wasn’t alone.’”
This being the age of influencers, New Age has proven to be popular — and lucrative — online, too.
Sarah Perl parlayed an interest in tarot card reading into a buzzy career. Now a senior at a Boston-area college (she declined to say which one), she began making TikToks in late 2019 interpreting colorful cards on the video-sharing app, often about her followers’ romantic futures.
Just before the pandemic hit, her videos went viral.
“Anything spiritual was trendy on the app at the beginning of COVID,” Perl said.
She expanded into Instagram and forged brand partnerships with the Discovery Channel, Warner Brothers, and psychic phone applications. Today, she boasts 1.3 million followers on TikTok and makes a full-time income online.
Her success, Perl said, is a welcome consequence of the movement toward spirituality, despite — or potentially because of — COVID.
“Tarot has been taboo for so long now, and then social media revealed how everyday people — regular, relatable — can use it in their lives,” she added. “And it’s all because no one’s been through anything like this before. The pandemic was a moment of change.”