Candle Shops of Downtown Baltimore
Copyright 2005-2023 Edward Knapp. All rights reserved
Baltimore, MD (2005) — In the mid-20th century, the city of Baltimore was a major hub of distribution for mass-produced spiritual supplies (for a fuller history, “Spiritual Merchants” by Carolyn Long is greatly recommended). Today, while its position as a national center for the distribution of spiritual products has waned, the Seton Hill / Lexington Market neighborhood is still a local and regional center of the trade in spiritual supplies. Indeed, this neighborhood still possesses an unusually high density of storefront psychic readers, vendors of perfume oils, and candle shops, even after the closing of the Palmer House in 1998.
While the dozen or so local vendors of perfume oils may sell scents that could be considered spiritual “condition oils”, this is not emphasized in their advertising nor sales pitches. Rather, it is the brick and mortar candle shops that offer extensive ranges of formulas for a variety of spiritual conditions, often in several forms, from powders to oils to candles.
Two of the 4 shops actually call themselves “candle shops” (Grandma’s Candle Shop and Old Grandpa’s Lucky Star Candle Shop). Jericho’s signage currently emphasizes its ‘body oils and herbal teas’, but its’ official name is the Jericho Herb and Candle Company, also known as “The Golden Horn” or, in earlier days, “The Clover Horn” — (Spiritual Merchants has the history of the Clover Horn in Baltimore). The fourth and most recently opened candle shop, Grandmas Too, is, as its name suggests, a sister store to Grandma’s.
All sell candles (among other things) and dried herbs, and all cater to a predominantly African-American and (presumably) hoodoo and rootwork-familiar clientele, but each has its own feel and range of focus.
None of these shops is a botanica — there are no fresh herbs, and few, if any, of the items specific to the Afro-Carribean diasporic traditions, although Saints candles are stocked, due at least in part to the prominence of Catholicism in Baltimore, and Maryland generally. Empty (unconsecrated) Ellegua heads, pre-strung (unconsecrated) elekes, and Indio Orisha candles may be stocked, but none of the proprietors are verifiably initiated in La Regla d’Ocha, Palo, Voudou, or any other Afro-Carribean tradition, nor are items such as fundamentos or cargas des palos typically stocked.
Although there are significant populations of Central American immigrants in Baltimore, they do not, for the most part, comprise the clientele of the candle shops in the area of Lexington Market. And indeed, neither cuarandismo- nor brujera-specific items are represented in the supplies and materials stocked by the candle shops, though Spanish-language novena candles may be stocked.
Jericho / Golden Horn
The oldest of the local candle shops and certainly the one with the richest history is the Jericho Herb and Candle Company (aka the Golden Horn, formerly the Clover Horn of Baltimore–see Spiritual Merchants by Carolyn Long for more detail).
Jericho occupies a corner storefront one block from the main building of Lexington Market and across the street from the smaller, Western annex of the market. The shop itself occupies the ground floor of the multi-story building. Whether the upper floors are in use I cannot say; the windows have been neatly boarded over and painted. The ground floor windows are completely covered in white-painted steel grating; a hand-painted clapboard sign on the side advertises “Gift Shop, Body Oils, Incense”, while over the door an aging white sign with red and blue lettering reads “Jericho Herb and Candle Company Natural Herbal Teas”. Additional red and gold banner signs advertising “Natural herbal teas” occupy the windows. If the store is closed, a roll-down corrugated metal grating completely obscures the corner-mounted doorway.
Inside, the store is dim and looks every inch the old-time hoodoo shop that it is — indeed, there is very little to indicate that this store exists in the current century. There are almost a dozen covered wooden barrels (some labeled “powdered incense”), with scoops, on the right side as you walk in; wooden shelves line the four walls, and glass cabinets along the right side and back walls define the sales counters. Shelves on the right-hand wall, just past the barrels, hold various figural candles and bottles of Florida water, kanaga water, Hoyt’s cologne, and at least 6 different colors of Chinese Wash. Although some of these are national-brand products identical to those sold elsewhere, most of the products, in their glass jars with metal lids and a wild assortment of paper labels (from crude photocopies to elaborate multi-color prints), appear to still be manufactured in-house.
The side countertop holds racks of bags of tinted sachet powders and stick incense, jars of buckeyes, tonka beans, river stones, High John, Little John to Chew, and Orris roots, and small jars of multicolored “Egyptian incense” powder and various sachet powders. Inside the glass cabinet are small bags of mandrake and devil’s shoestrings, lucky Buddha statues in various materials, oversized horseshoes, and a selection of condition baths and powders in metal-screwtop glass jars.
Further along, a second glass cabinet displays dozens of multicolored oils in 1/2 oz. glass bottles with predominantly 2-tone paper labels whose designs date back to the first half of the 20th century. Probably 85% of these are condition oils, perhaps 10% are single fragrance oils, and the final 5% fragrance blends. The “Genuine Essential Oil” labels on the single fragrance oils bear the”Clover Horn Co. Balto., Md” imprint; the condition oils (like the other condition products) tend to have names like “so-called Success brand” or “alleged Concentration brand”. It should be noted that few of the oils I’ve seen at Jericho contain any solid matter, with the exception of a couple of oils advertised as “with root” and containing a signle fragment of the root in question, and a few more that contain glitter.
Where the side and back counters meet, there is a tall glass cabinet filled with various name brand herbal products and tonic (Noni, and the like). A display of spiritual soaps (Florida water, Santa Barbara, and 7 African powers) of indeterminate manufacture occupies the end of the back counter. Behind both the side and back counters on the wall are shallow wooden shelves stocked with a wide assortment of condition-oriented washes, oils, incense, aerosol sprays, and powders, most of which appear to be manufactured in-house. There is a back room beyond the back sales counter, but to the best of my knowledge, there is no one who does readings or divination at Jericho.
Across from side sales counter, moving along the wall from back to front, are a rack of chapbooks (Anna Riva, dream number books, and psalm-working titles) and tall glass-front wooden cabinets full of candles. Upper shelves hold plain and silk-screened glass 7-day candles of various colors, while boxes of small votives occupy the lower shelves. A large cabinet at the very front of the store (on the left as one enters the store) holds additional glass 7-day candles, as well as huge glass-encased (14-day? 21-day?) candles of various colors. Of the silk-screened designs, about 40% relate to conditions (jinx-breaking, run devil run, road opening, etc.), probably another 40% are various classic spiritual and metaphysical designs, such as Indian Guide, Seal of Solomon, 7 African powers, and the ever-popular (though not strictly Hoodoo) Chango y Macho. The remaining 20% or so are Catholic saint novena candles.
Moving along the wall to the front of the store (across from the barrels), one finds the dried herb and tea section. Both the wall shelves and an island in the center of the front floor area are devoted to big glass jars of dried herbs and bags of tea. One may browse the herb/tea section, although the staff do the actual weighing and packaging of whatever materials one may need. Generally speaking, the dried herb selection at Jericho is above average, relative to other local vendors, though, as with all vendors in the city, there are availability issues with certain items.
Percentage-wise, it appears that at least 90% of the condition oils, washes, sachet powders, and incense powders at Jericho are still made in-house; I have not noticed other mass-produced (Indio, etc.) condition products in my visits, and only a handful of classic national brands, such as Hoyt’s and Murray & Lanmann.
The staff people I’ve encountered at Jericho, while not particularly chatty, are generally helpful–they know their stock and will answer questions about what things are and what they’re for. I don’t feel that I can provide a definitive overview of Jericho’s clientele, although I think it would be safe to say that most are African American and have some knowledge of Hoodoo practice, whether from simple cultural familiarity, as consumers of pre-made products, or as rootworkers proper. Herbs and roots for teas appear to be particularly popular.
Grandma’s Candle Shop
Grandma’s Candle Shop (aka Grandma’s) has been a fixture in the Lexington Market neighborhood since the 1970s. Originally located on Saratoga St., Grandma’s was forced to relocate to Baltimore St. in the ’90s by an urban renewal project that never quite happened. In 2000, the Westside development project almost forced Grandma’s to move once again, but a last-minute revision of the development plan spared the south side of the West Baltimore St. block on which Grandma’s was located. Grandma opened a second location on Saratoga St., Grandma’s Candles Too, which lasted a few years before both stores were consolidated into the Saratoga space. As of 2007, Grandma’s Candles Too was no more, and Grandma’s Candle Shop is now located back on Saratoga Street.
[On a more historical note, this area is one of the few Downtown sections that did not burn in the great fire of 1904, so many of the buildings in this area are significantly older than those in other parts of the Downtown/Inner Harbor area. And while the Westside development project has resurrected the Hippodrome Theatre to a semblance of its former glory, it has also been the leading edge of forcible gentrification of this area, claiming most of the buildings and small businesses on the blocks bounded by Paca, Baltimore, Howard, and Fayette streets. That block and the block that Grandma’s occupied on Baltimore St. used to be home to a variety of businesses affiliated with the garment trade, none of which now survive in their original locations, although the Hippodrome Hatter did manage to move back into a storefront around the corner from its former location.]
Grandma’s Baltimore St. location did quite well, and in 2003, Grandma opened a second store, Grandma’s Candles Too (referred to here as Grandma’s Too), on West Saratoga St, not far from her original location (and only 5 blocks from her Baltimore Street store). Both stores had a more Wicca/New Age vibe than do either Jericho or Grandpa’s Lucky Star, though there were also distinct differences in product mix and atmosphere between Grandma’s and Grandma’s Too.
Grandma’s Too had aspects of a New Age gift shop, while Grandma’s has a more classically occult feel. The difference in focus and presentation was deliberate, and Grandma’s Too did fill a niche that was not specifically addressed by other stores in the area. Grandma herself did readings using playing cards at both locations.
Grandma’s Baltimore Street shop was a narrow, plain, one-story glass-fronted storefront wedged between an 1880’s-era stone-built bank-turned-nightclub and a check-cashing outlet. Inside, Grandma’s was dim and a bit threadbare in places, but densely stocked: Glass cases of mineral specimens, figurines, and aromatherapy diffusers vie with racks and shelves of candles of all sizes and descriptions for one’s attention as one walks in the door. Sales counters occupied the back and one of the side walls. Figural candles, bottles of cologne, rows of vials of condition and fragrance/essential oils, and and a surprisingly extensive selection of dried herbs filled the shelves that lined the walls behind the sales counters, while the glass cases supporting the counters housed a sizable array of bric a brac, mineral specimens, and amulet curios. Grandma’s current Saratoga street store is comparatively polished glass and turquoise laminate storefront with large front display windows, which dates from at least the 1940s. While the current Grandma’s on Saratoga Street retains much of the Baltimore shop’s stock, shelving, and counter space, the Saratoga street space has almost double the floor space, resulting in a shop that feels less crowded and more expansive than the Baltimore St. location did.
In addition to a line of self-published dreambooks and lottery books, Grandma’s also stocks an extensive selection of printed material covering subjects ranging from positive-thought self-help to serious academic texts on Ifa diviniation — indeed, Grandma’s is one of only two stores that I know of in Baltimore City (the other would be Everyone’s Place on North Avenue) to stock small press academic texts on African and Diasporic religions and spiritual practice.
In contrast, Grandma’s Too, originally housed in the Saratoga street location was bright and airy, thanks to its relatively large floor area. The range of candles and accessories overlapped Grandma’s to some extent, but Grandma’s Too carried a greater percentage of gift-items, statuary, and bric a brac than any of the other local candle shops, and a smaller selection of dried herbs than either Jericho or Grandma’s. Aromatherapy candles and Indio products are well-represented, and the book selection, while still significant, leaned more towards self-help and introductory tarot and spell-casting than ceremonial magic or academic texts.
Judged by the standard of adherence to traditional Southern Hoodoo formulas and methods, the spiritual / condition products at Grandma’s and Grandma’s Too were and are a hit or miss proposition. Many of the oils are Indio standards, some are targeted toward aromatherapy, some are national brands, and still others are almost anonymous in their packaging. Sachet powders and bath crystals were and are not prominent, in marked contrast with Jericho. Herbs are likewise variable — all are dried, most are cut-and-sifted, and their identities are only as reliable as the suppliers’ descriptions. For commonly available herbs, Grandma’s is, for the most part, adequate.
Grandma’s serves a diverse clientele, representing a cross section of the local and regional population; customers have ranged from dancers from the previously-nearby (now-shuttered and in the process of being redeveloped) gentleman’s club looking for Ven a Mi (“Come to Me”) candles, to Heathen (as in Northern tradition) folks from rural Western Maryland/West Virginia who might make the trek into Baltimore once or twice a year to stock up on supplies. That said, Grandma’s and Grandma’s Too both serve a predominantly African-American clientele.
The clientele vary widely in terms of actual practices and expertise. Some are working by traditional methods or at least according to their own well-defined system; others appear to be looking for an outside edge or an alternative way to address their problems, perhaps in the form of an Indio money-drawing aerosol spray.
Grandma herself readily adjusts her advice and recommendations to whatever spiritual system her clients follow — no small feat given that the paths of her clientele range from Hoodoo to New Age / Wicca to the Daily Numbers. The sales people at both locations were and are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, and generally knowledgeable in providing recommendations to customers.