A customer's first visit to Botanica Mama Roots can be a slightly intimidating one. There's a giant pentagram on the window, demon statuettes behind the counter, voodoo dolls on the wall and a glass case containing ornate daggers and swords.
Yet a closer browse through the shop reveals a more lighthearted tone—underneath the pentagram are tongue-in-cheek signs that read "The Witch Is In" and "Neighborhood Witch." Located in Normal Heights (3512 Adams Ave.), Botanica Mama Roots has established itself as San Diego's friendly neighborhood magic and occult shop.
Yet when owner I-Star opened the shop in East Village in 1989, before relocating to Normal Heights 10 years later, it didn't carry much in the way of oils, talismans or forbidden objects from places where men fear to tread.
"It started out as a reggae store," I-Star says. "I sold music and eventually added items from the Caribbean and Africa, and it started to take on a life of its own."
Now, 24 years later, Botanica Mama Roots carries a wide array of books, oils, powders and various objects used for ritual and magical purposes. Additionally, I-Star is a Santera—a priestess in the practice of Santeria—and gives readings in her shop by appointment.
The "botanica" in the shop's name refers to a large selection of naturally grown items used for rituals, but a witch-in-training can spend an afternoon stocking up on other items, the most popular of which, I-Star says, are candles, incense and good-luck oils, a favorite for those headed to nearby casinos. However, Botanica Mama Roots offers items that appeal to a wide array of spiritual beliefs.
"Mostly people come with a spiritual purpose," she says. "We cater to a variety of different religious practices—voodoo, Wicca, Santeria. We're a supermarket for Pagan supplies."
Keeping a business healthy for 24 years can be tricky in any industry, though with a niche outlet like Botanica Mama Roots, I-Star says, it's important to embrace both diversity and honesty when it comes to your customers.
"It takes time to build up a clientele, but it helps to be versatile," she says. "I just try to be as honest as I can. I'm not going to say that everything is going to work. I don't guarantee anything.
"I tell people, 'It works if you think it does.'"
Here is a selection of some of the most interesting items available at the shop.
Dragon's Blood: A resin extracted from a variety of plants and available in powder, oil or incense form, used for power, purification, protection or consecration.
Haitian Dressed Coffin: An inch-long box resembling its namesake—supposedly inspired by a Haitian legend—which is used in spells to remove curses or banish negative energy.
Grimoire of the Necronomicon : A book inspired by the fictional tome that appears in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, containing occult rituals for summoning the dead and the like.
Graveyard Dirt: A common ingredient in spells cast by Wicca or Voodoo practitioners, Graveyard Dirt can be applied to protection spells, tricking one's enemies or in casting love spells.
Black Destroyer Oil: Though it comes in an unassuming vial, Black Destroyer Oil boasts some impressive power, supposedly used to destroy curses, hatred resentments, envy and any evil intentions.