NEW YORK — Cecilia Oliver was having a problem with her lover and needed some help. “He’s being resistant,” she explained. “I want where he’s submissive to me at all times.”
She had come to the Original Products Company, an emporium in New York’s borough of the Bronx, where she had heard she could buy the ingredients for a magic charm to put under the insole of her shoe.
Mario Allai, a store employee and Santeria priest, knew just what she was looking for. “You want to keep him miserable,” he said matter-of-factly.
“No, not miserable,” Oliver, 41, replied, smiling archly. “Just underfoot.”
This is the busiest time of the year for Original Products and the many other botanicas around the city and the United States — purveyors of herbs, amulets and other items used in Afro-Caribbean religions and occult practices including Santeria, voodoo and Wicca.
Customers, infused with the spirit of renewal inspired by a new year, come in search of ways to improve their lives. They are looking for love, health and wealth, new jobs and relationships, an end to their misfortunes and a jolt for their luck.
“Everyone is getting ready to cleanse themselves for the New Year,” said Jason Mizrahi, a co-owner of the company, which was started in 1959 by his father, the son of Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Turkey. The business, which fills a former supermarket, claims to be the largest botanica on the United States’ East Coast.
Its brightly lighted aisles teem with hundreds of varieties of candles, oils, perfumes, cleaning liquids, air fresheners and incense powders, offering solutions fine-tuned for a host of specific problems.
Someone put a hex on you? There are Jinx Removing and Spell Breaker oils. Haunted by spirits? Try the Go Away Evil bath salts or Run Devil Run floor soap. Broke and destitute? Buy some Bad Luck Out, Good Luck In oil and freshen up the house with Mr. Money aerosol spray. No one to love? Bathe with Attraction soap, dab on some Come to Me perfume and light a Tame Him candle, perhaps coated with Dragon’s Blood oil to boost the potency of the charm.
An entire aisle is devoted to statuary, from 10-centimeter-tall dashboard figurines of Saint Anthony and Saint Barbara to a 90-centimeter-tall Grim Reaper molded in translucent plastic. An herbs and roots department sells scores of preparations for teas and baths, including mugwort, devil’s shoestring and wahoo bark. There are voodoo-doll pincushions and a bookstore.
The store was bustling one afternoon recently, its sound system blasting salsa. The patrons were mainly Caribbean Latinos — Dominican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Cuban-Americans — though they included Haitians and African-Americans.
Ricelly Veloz, 24, a Dominican-American from the Bronx, was clutching a shopping list and looking harried. “Where can I find Dinero Rapido?” she asked an employee, seeking a product whose name means quick cash. “I’ve been here an hour already, and I can’t find it.”
She was with her sister, Stacy, 18, and their cart was filling up with New Year’s preparations. Ricelly Veloz, a health insurance marketer, had bought several innocuous-sounding oils and bath soaps including Rose, Love, Sunflower and Patchouli — for year-end cleansing, she said. Her sister’s oils and soaps seemed more strategic: Spell Breaker, Attractive, Wall Breaker and Unleash the Power.
But quick cash was nowhere to be found. The employee recommended mixing Money Drawing and Fast Luck. The Veloz sisters looked unconvinced and passed up the offer.
Mizrahi says the company takes in about $3 million each year from sales through its store, Web site (originalprodcorp.com), catalog and distribution to scores of smaller botanicas all over the world. Its largest customer is a distributor in the Netherlands that buys at least one 12-meter shipping container full of goods every year, said Mizrahi, 34, who took over the business a dozen years ago and owns it with his cousin Steve Amateau, 51, a former television producer.
In a basement workshop, employees make many of the products. The company has turned over the second floor, rent-free, to the Pagan Center of New York, which holds witchcraft rituals overseen by a Wiccan high priestess named Lady Rhea.
Mizrahi does not follow any of the faiths his store provides for, but said he subscribed to the “concept of spirituality and keeping a positive attitude by using these products.”
“These things are daily needs, staples,” he continued. “Milk, eggs, bread, incense, candles, in that order. Sometimes incense and candles are ahead of milk and eggs, on a day like today.”
His longest-serving employee, Anthony Lopez, who joined the company in 1974, described himself as “an underpaid therapist.”
“Any problem they have, they come here,” he said. “And then they go to the doctor.”
“Maybe they go to the doctor,” Mizrahi interjected.
He told a story. “I had a lady come in here one time and tell me, ‘My son thinks he’s a snake.’ I say, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I put the food down on the ground, and he slithers along the floor and darts his tongue in and out of his mouth.’ I gave her something to put in his shoes.”
Another story: “Guy asked me — this was on the telephone — ‘Do you sell iron pots?’ ‘Yes, we sell iron pots.’ ‘Do you sell large pots?’ ‘Yes, we do.’ ‘How large?’ ‘Well, how large do you need?’ ‘Big enough to fit a person?’ “
Mizrahi paused to let the punch line sink in. “I may get something like that once a week,” he said.
A middle-age man carrying a box walked into the store. He is a regular supplier of objects used in Santeria rituals. “What do you got?” Mizrahi asked.
“Coyote skulls,” the man replied. He pulled a dozen, one at a time, from the box and carefully inspected the teeth. If any were missing, he said, “it’s a different price point.”
Several minutes later, the man was gone and the skulls were lined up on a shelf in the Santeria section with price tags stuck to their snouts ($60 each). Nearby were peacock feathers, horseshoes, dried scorpions and dead vampire bats in plastic bags.
A short, plump man missing half his teeth approached the counter to speak with Allai, the Santeria priest. The man said he had been suffering pain and heat flashes for several years and suspected he was haunted by bad spirits.
“They speak to me,” he said. “My wife doesn’t believe me.” He suddenly flinched — spirits moving under the skin again, he explained.
He said he did not need to see a doctor. “I don’t have a medical problem,” he insisted. “It’s something spiritual.”
Allai, 70, had seen this customer many times. And as before, he recommended herb-infused baths. The man loaded his shopping basket with herbs, added a red good-luck candle called La Madama — “Maybe it gives me protection,” he said — and hustled toward the cash register.