Portland is widely celebrated for its abundance of food carts and microbreweries. According to to Portlander Maria Vashakidze, however, cheap eats and local brews aren’t all that the Rose City has in spades.
“I think the city has a lot of magic,” says Vashakidze, owner of Seagrape Soap. “You can feel it when you land here.”
Seagrape is part of what some call the “Mystic District”: A single block in Northeast Portland that’s home to a trio of shops with magical supplies galore. Whether you’re curious about crystals, dreaming of a new divination deck, or just looking for a sweet-smelling bar of soap, these shops will meet your needs and spark your imagination.
A Georgian immigrant, Vashakidze grew up in New York and studied painting and book arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She began making bath and body products to raise money for school, and the business took off. Nearly a decade later, Vashakidze still spends her days making rosemary shampoo bars, bay rum aftershave and aromatherapeutic soaps in scents like lavender orange and mint green tea. While Portland has dozens of professional soap-makers, Vashakidze stands out in one major way: She’s a witch.
“My magic is scent,” Vashakidze explains. “I work with essential oils and plant matter magically. My spell work looks like a lot of self-care, basically.” That spell work often happens at Seagrape, Vashakidze’s soap-making studio and retail shop. In addition to an expansive house line of soaps, perfumes, bath scrubs and massage oils, Seagrape carries witchy products from queer artists across the country. Think smudge sticks, divination decks, ritual candles and sprays with names like “Boundaries in a Bottle” and “Mercury Clarity Spray.”
Brown Bear Herbs
Two doors down from Seagrape, Arati Ursus carefully prepares herbal cigarettes for her many online customers. A registered nurse, Ursus began exploring herbalism more than a decade ago.
“I was in an herb shop and the plants started talking to me,” she explains. “The first one that really talked to me was uva ursi. I researched it, and finally discovered that it was a sacred smoking herb for Native Americans. That’s how I got started experimenting with smoke.”
In 2016, Ursus opened Brown Bear Herbs Magical Mini Mart, a shop that offers a selection of feminist zines and tinctures alongside a wide array of organic herbal cigarettes. Devoid of tobacco, nicotine and marijuana, the cigs are meant to help smokers curb their addiction. Each herbal blend is formulated to be used for different situations, including socializing, sex and sleeping.
Like Vashakidze, Ursus identifies as a witch. “I would say that I’m a star witch, bringing down information from the stars and then working with the tools of this planet,” she explains. “[I’m interested in] how we can use the real physical tools of Mother Earth to heal ourselves.”
Visiting the “Mystic District”
Sugar Mountain Vintage — a psychedelic thrift shop stocking crystals and elixirs alongside shearling vests and retro patches — rounds out the offerings. Witches, New Agers, radicals and curious visitors flock to the block to explore a wide range of magical tools. It’s natural for newcomers to feel intimidated, but there’s no need; items are clearly labeled with their names and uses. And Ursus and Vashakidze are both happy to answer questions or suggest products.
“I encourage people to try things … to slather themselves in the good smells,” says Vashakidze. “Nothing’s precious or fragile because it’s all magic you’re supposed to use; it’s all very functional.” Seagrape also hosts public events and workshops several times a month, which run the gamut from drop-in tarot readings and astrology lessons to classes like “Mercury retrograde self defense” and “the spiritual lives of your pets.” The shop even provides free event space for Sacred Lattice, a witch school serving Portlanders of color.
“Rent is ridiculous in Portland, and everything involves so much money, so if you’re a person of color, or a person that’s differently abled, or a queer or trans person — if you don’t have access — you can’t get anything off the ground,” Vashakidze explains. “So the space gets donated pretty often, and the events I host are all sliding scale, with work trade options available.”
Magic goes mainstream
Tarot, herbalism, astrology and divination have all been around for centuries, but teens and young adults seem to be flocking to the magical tools in unprecedented numbers. Tarot deck sales are currently at record highs, popular horoscope website AstrologyZone attracts 6 million visitors per month and ceremonial smudge sticks are now available at mainstream stores like Whole Foods.
“I think tarot and astrology and magic are different languages,” says Vashakidze. “People are starting to realize, ‘I can use the language of astrology to help talk about my life in a different way, or I can use the language of tarot as a self-help or self-care aid. It’s a way for me to communicate my needs and desires.’”
Of course, there will always be skeptics who don’t believe in magic, tarot or astrology — or anything found in these shops. Some people who buy Seagrape soap simply do so because it smells good. None of that fazes Vashakidze.
“The things I think of as magic, [like] ritual cleansing baths and sitting with plants — to a lot of people, that’s just being in nature or taking a bath,” she explains. “It gets dismissed pretty often, and I don’t pay it any mind. It’s something that makes me really happy, something that centers me and gives me a lot of fuel for my week.” After all, Vashakidze says, if she worried too much about what other people thought, she’d never be doing the thing that makes her so happy for a living.