Store manager Alexis Sullivan, left, and Jess Howell, owner of the Monument Square shop Lady in the Moon in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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When Jess Howell, owner of the Lady in the Moon mystical boutique, was younger her mother used to talk a lot about zodiac signs.

A self-described “pragmatic” person, Howell said she initially dismissed it as a “bunch of silliness.” 

That is, until she went through a life transition a little over a decade ago that included moving to Chicago from the Detroit area and going through a bad breakup. It changed her perspective and set her life on a new path. 

“(I) looked into it a little bit more and looked into my birth chart and I was kind of blown away,” Howell said last week. “I thought, maybe there is a little bit of truth to this.”

The storefront of Lady in the Moon, which sells items like crystals and offers tarot and astrology readings. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Howell opened Lady in the Moon’s new Monument Square shop, in the former Others! cafe, just before Christmas. She previously ran a smaller version of the store for two years on Free Street and said her work has become less stigmatized and more mainstream in the last three or four years.

Now, the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic has further normalized her business, with psychic services and demand for services like tarot card readings surging around the world. 

Theresa Fernand, a Florida-based psychic medium, told Today.com last fall that her business had doubled during the pandemic, due to what she believed was people looking for a “spiritual connection.”

Likewise, according to an August 2020 report in the New York Post, New York City psychic Betsy LaFae, who charges nearly $1,000 for hour-long readings, was among the mystics who saw a “steep uptick” in requests for her services amid the pandemic.

The British paper “i” also reported last October that demand was up for psychic mediums, possibly due to people trying to contact loved ones who had died from COVID-19.

In a December op-ed for Teen Vogue, writer Taryn Herlich wrote about how watching tarot readings on TikTok, which have exploded in popularity in the past year, helped her find meaning during recent difficult times. 

In addition to seeking services from professionals, the boom in tarot readings on social media seems to have inspired many people to buy their own decks.

Melissa Ellsworth, owner of the Forest Avenue store Leapin’ Lizards, said tarot card sales have been “through the roof” during the pandemic, and she has been ordering the cards at “at least three times the level” that she was pre-pandemic.

“I definitely think with all of the uncertainty in the world that people are curious about their future, about spirituality,” Ellsworth said last week. “So we definitely fit that niche for people.”

Setting up shop

Howell started to abandon her skepticism while she was in graduate school. She started studying and practicing astrology and found she had a knack for it, she said. She began her own astrology practice, which involved doing readings at private parties, and it gained momentum. 

Items on display in Lady in the Moon on Monument Square in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“I was proven wrong, because maybe my mom was right all along, which was kind of a hard pill to swallow,” she said. 

Howell initially opened Lady in the Moon on Free Street as a pop-up to supplement her astrology practice in October 2017, and it did better than she expected. The store sells items like crystals and home decor, and the new location will also begin serving beer, wine, and tea this spring, as well as offering tarot and astrology readings.

Howell started hunting for a larger storefront at the end of 2019 and moved to Monument Square about a week before the virus throttled Maine almost a year ago. Lady in the Moon went on what she called “hiatus” from last March until six weeks ago and is seeking a professional, experienced tarot reader to join its team because the person who was lined up moved away during the pandemic.

Ellsworth also knows all about the challenges of owning a mystical store, especially during difficult times for society. She has been owner of Leapin’ Lizards, which also has a location in Freeport, for nearly 20 years. 

The Portland shop opened a month prior to Sept. 11, 2001. She said she felt her business was needed at that time.

“We (have) been through the great recession of 2008, and now we’ve been through COVID,” Ellsworth said. “All these things seem to make us stronger and more needed.”

For the first part of the pandemic, Leapin’ Lizards conducted readings via Zoom and over the phone. The store is now able to conduct in-person readings again but doesn’t have as many readers as it did before the pandemic, because some had health concerns.

All in-person readings are conducted behind plexiglass, there are air purifiers in the building, and at least 6 feet of distance between readers and clients. Everyone must also wear masks. 

Leapin’ Lizards on Forest Avenue in Portland will celebrate its 20th anniversary this summer, and also has a location in Freeport. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

In addition to more people buying tarot decks, Ellsworth said she has noticed herbs and resins are selling at “three or four times” as much as usual. She also struggles to keep a big inventory of crystals, which she said “go out almost as quickly as they come in.”

There has also been a heightened demand for tarot classes at Leapin’ Lizards, which are taught by tarot reader Alicia Karol. Ellsworth said most classes have been selling out.

Coincidentally, a tarot class two decades ago is also what first inspired Ellsworth to leave her corporate job and open Leapin’ Lizards. She had never touched tarot cards, but a friend of hers was taking a class during what Ellsworth called a “long Maine winter,” and her interest was piqued.

When asking questions about her former corporate job, Ellsworth kept drawing “The Devil” card, which represents restriction and addiction in tarot, among other negative things.

As she climbed the corporate ladder, she found her job had become “less about people and more about politics,” she said, and at the time she had the idea to open Leapin’ Lizards, there were no other stores like it in the area. 

Over the years, she said, her industry has become more popular and accepted.

“I think over the years (some people think) ‘oh it would be fun to own a store like this,’ they don’t realize that it’s complex,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that need to happen to make it run well. I feel like we’ve really been blessed.”

Reading the room

Karol, the resident tarot reader at Leapin’ Lizards, has been reading tarot cards since she was a little girl.

Her father is a professional magician, which is what inspired her to begin her practice. Karol moved to Portland a year and a half ago from New York City, where she also used to read tarot. She is also an artist and has designed her own tarot deck.

She said she has definitely seen an increase in the number of people seeking readings during the pandemic, including many who never had before. And people familiar with getting tarot readings, she said, have been seeking them more frequently.

Doing readings in person, she said, is “a lot easier” than relying just on the sound of someone’s voice via Zoom or phone to determine what is going on with them.

Alicia Karol, tarot card reader at the Forest Avenue shop Leapin’ Lizards, said she has seen more people seeking tarot readings during the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Karol called the practice of tarot “deeply personal,” and said she thinks more people are seeking answers “from within” right now instead of looking to someone else for them. She also believes the pandemic has also let a lot of people down.

“(Many) young people thought their life was going to go in a certain direction, (but now) they’re like ‘wait, I need to figure this out for myself,” she said. “Tarot is a great tool to try to understand your own subconscious and do your own analysis.”

Portland resident Caelainn Costello first started reading tarot for herself a few years ago and said while she is not “100 percent sold on the accuracy” of the practice, she uses the cards like a horoscope.

“I never rely on my readings to give me answers to all my questions, but it helps to talk things out and think things over that I otherwise never would have thought about,” she said.

Howell said while part of her likes that tarot is becoming more popular – she used to have a really hard time with people’s perception of her work – another part of her worries some people will seek guidance from inexperienced readers.

You have to be careful when giving people advice, she said, since anything a reader says can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for a client.

A January report in The New York Times illustrated this concern. Along with higher demand for psychic services during the pandemic, the Times said, some people are seeking psychic guidance instead of mental health services, and falling victim to scams.

The Times also suggested the trend in seeking psychic services could point to a broader move toward secularism. According to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of U.S. adults would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Ultimately, Karol said she thinks it is a good thing more people are becoming interested in tarot cards. To skeptics, she said, she would say the cards are just a tool to “tether your own thoughts.”

It can be helpful, she added, to attribute an image to an emotion you are feeling, but she thinks everyone should think for themselves before taking action based on a tarot reading.

“I hope that people who don’t understand it will start to realize what a healthy, positive tool for self-analysis tarot is,” Karol said. “It doesn’t have to exist in conflict with religion or science or logic or anything like that. It can go alongside all of these things.”