“Can I have some of your hair?”
Phillip English isn’t kidding. So, after hesitating a beat, I pluck a strand of hair from my head. He gingerly places the hair in a small baggie, seals it shut, and writes my name on it with a Sharpie.
“One concept of magic is conceptual overkill,” Phil explains. “To help with your focus.”
Next, Phil puts on Dr. Hook’s “The Cover of Rolling Stone” and blasts it through the speakers. Finally, on a blank sheet of paper, he writes, “It is my will to be the first occult bookstore to be on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.” It’s come up that I’m an intern at Rolling Stone. Phil got very excited, and now I’m the connecting force between Catland, the occult bookstore in Bushwick that Phil co-owns, and the magazine.
Two years ago in February, three friends – Fred Jennings, 28, Joe Peterson, 26, and English, 28 – opened Catland to mixed reviews but booming business. Some locals worried the store would hasten gentrification; others cheered the business for serving an overlooked community of neo-pagans, wiccans, and the otherwise magically-inclined.
The store is unique in that, unlike the popular Brooklyn-based, female-led Moon Church or Witches of Bushwick, Catland is run by three men. “We’re kind of a boy store,” Phil admits. “But our goal is to be inclusive to a very diverse population. It’s good that there’s a goddess-oriented movement, but we want to focus on anyone who’s interested in alternative spirituality, anyone who’s interested in willful actions to affect change in the world.”
The bookstore part of the business stocks hundreds of magical textbooks, a huge variety of candles and incense, anointing oils, gemstones, crystals, jewelry, rune stones, tarot cards, swords, and wands. The walls at Catland are blood red, and the atmosphere is at once eerie and inviting. At the back of the store is a black curtain separating the bookstore from the event space, which is where the real magic — tarot readings, spiritual meditations, and mysterious rituals — happens. It’s a large, dark room, lit by two light bulbs encased in metal cages.
Phil is the self-proclaimed loudmouth of the Catland owners. Fred and Joe are soft-spoken and gentle; Phil is a Tasmanian devil. His mannerisms border on spastic, and he’s almost always moving or fidgeting or twitching. He’s skinny and long, with a well-groomed beard and black plastic-rimmed glasses. Tonight he’s wearing a fur trapper hat with flaps that cover his ears, a non-descript hoodie and jeans, and a silver necklace. The pendant, he explains, is Mjolnir – Thor’s hammer – and was made for him by a local artisan in exchange for divination services.
Phil was born and raised in Titusville, Florida, the middle of five half-siblings. His parents divorced before he could remember. His mother remarried and had four children with her new husband; Phil’s father, a folk musician, retained primary custody of him. While his mother’s family was, as he says, “hardcore Pentecostal Christian,” his father was a practicing Norse pagan, and trained Phil in Norse magic from a young age.
“My childhood was very confusing,” he says.
Phil’s father taught him to use runes – ancient Norse symbols used in divination and magic ritual – when he was ten years old. Phil accepted Norse magic as a way of life, but not without some reservations.
“I don’t think children should have that kind of thing put on them,” Phil says. “I don’t think it was totally crappy, but I don’t think that kids need to be trained in magic, because it’s already inherent to them.”
Like lots of kids, Phil rebelled. But he didn’t separate himself from magic; instead, he took it further. He became a theistic Satanist, a form of Satanism that claims the Devil is an actual deity. He listened to death metal and black metal, and went through a Satanic phase when he was just 11.
“It was this perfect, beautiful, rebellious feeling,” Phil says. “But it wasn’t healthy. I wanted to do something evil—not criminal, but I wanted to connect with the forces of darkness, because I was rebelling. I was precocious. And then I got over it.”
As he grew, Phil went through a Marxist materialist phase, and an agnostic phase, but he was still doing rune magic when it struck him as appropriate. “It’s such a part of my makeup as a person that I can’t separate myself from it,” Phil says. “It’s like my operating system.”
And in fact, he says he used rune magic to become homecoming king. “I used the rune Tiwaz to trick my way into becoming the first homecoming king that the high school had that wasn’t a football player,” Phil says. “Before or since, if I’m not mistaken.”
Then, when Phil was 19 years old, he had a spiritual incident that changed his life. “I had what I can only describe as a profound out-of-body experience, wherein my consciousness of myself dissolved into scintillating, dazzling lights,” Phil says. “Just lights and color.”
“I experienced what I can only call God face to face; actually, gods, two of them. And those gods happen to have appeared to me as Norse gods: Hyndal, first, and then Odin, the chief god, showed me his face. And then cast me back, with this message of, ‘Go learn magic. Because I am the god of magic, go learn.’ To what end I still don’t know. And I’ve had lots of crazy magical experiences afterwards, but none so full of certainty as that.”
“I would call it gnosis,” he continues, “which is like an encounter with the divine. Or,” he’s quick to point out, “signs of schizophrenia. I won’t say that either are mutually exclusive. Thankfully, I’ve been to doctors, and they say I’m not schizophrenic.”
Phil briefly studied astrophysics at the University of Central Florida. He dropped out after a few months, when he landed his then-dream-job for the independent record label, Built on Strength Records. He also DJed and worked at nightclubs on the side. Then, when he was 23, Phil moved to New York to pursue other job opportunities in the music industry, from managing nightclubs to designing their lighting systems.
“I worked at nightclubs from the age of 18 to 26,” Phil says. “The thing about that lifestyle, I discovered, is that I started to slow down.”
So at 26, Phil re-enrolled in school at the New School for Public Engagement, where, two years later, he’s pursuing a dual bachelor-master degree in psychology. At around the same time that he started school, Phil met Joe, his would-be Catland co-owner, at a ritual held by a fraternal occult organization of which Phil is a member.
“We became very good friends fairly quickly,” Joe says. “Something that always struck me about Phil was that he was very, very genuine. There are so many people that you meet in your life where their interactions with you are all just farce. But with Phil, he was always just a very real person. And you can see his humanity.”
Not long after, Phil met the third co-owner, Fred, at a party. “As co-workers, Phil and Joe are excellent,” Fred says. “And I think being friends first helped with that. We had a sense of each others’ strengths and weaknesses going into this, and it’s helped at every turn.” Each of them lent a specific talent to Catland: Fred, a lawyer, had the business acumen; Joe, a craftsman, had the handiwork skills; and Phil, a lifelong practitioner, had the occult knowledge.
Now, the guys are working on a project to build a community garden behind the store. The planned space will feature raised planters, a shaded awning, patio furniture, and a fire pit. Catland started an Indiegogo campaign to raise money through crowdfunding, and hope to raise $15,000 by May 26. As of May 1, they’ve raised $1,900. “We want to combat urban alienation as much as possible,” Phil says. “So much of what the pagan groups are discussing are communing with nature, and they talk about the four elements. And we realized that it’s kind of silly to just talk about the four elements, and not really engage with them.”
I ask Phil if he considers what he’s doing a “mission.” He replies, “Yeah, that’s what it feels like. To help other people, and to help myself. We live in a very disenchanted world and there’s something beneficial to the human spirit about re-enchanting the world.” He considers it for a moment then adds, “I guess I’m for it.”