your connection to The Boston Globe

The magic numbers

Purveyors of the psychic arts worry as Salem's city leaders look to expand the witchery marketplace

SALEM -- The resident witches want to keep Witch City their own.

The City Council unanimously passed an ordinance last night to license palm readers and fortunetellers who have been in Salem for at least a year, pass a criminal background check, and submit a résumé showing at least five years of experience.

But a group calling itself the Witches' Public Awareness League, made up of several locals who have for years offered psychic readings for a fee, said the proposal isn't enough to stop interlopers who show up during the busy Halloween season and steal their business.

The league wants to limit the number of palm readers allowed at psychic fairs popular around Halloween. It also seeks to require that each purveyor of psychic services pay a fee of $25 per day during fairs.

Laurie Stathopoulos, a card reader for more than two decades, said that many depend on Halloween profits to get through the year.

"To put 40 psychics in the same street is outrageous," Stathopoulos said before the meeting. "We hold people's lives in the palm of our hand sometimes."

While it imposes new standards, the ordinance will allow more palm readers and fortunetellers to operate in Salem, by lifting a cap that limits the number of licenses to one per 10,000 residents. Passed more than a decade ago, that limit allowed only 12 official psychics. Some Wiccan business owners have since plied their trade unlicensed, because there were no penalties.

The new ordinance will impose a $100 fine on unlicensed operators.

The ordinance will open up the field to other stores and individuals, while stopping outsiders from coming to Salem to cash in or prey on its residents, said Joan Lovely, a councilor at large.

"Whether you're doing this as a religion or as a business, we don't care," Lovely said. "We're just trying to put rules in place."

The ordinance, however, has divided the psychic community.

Some proprietors say the move will be fairer and bring more business to the area.

Joanna Thomas, 34, who owns New England Magic, said she will be the first to sign up for a license. Every day, two chairs sit empty in front of her crystal ball , because she had not been legally allowed to offer tarot readings in the shop .

"It wasn't fair that they haven't been giving out licenses all this time, but I am happy they are recognizing businesses [as being] as important as residents," she said.

Others worry that increasing the number of psychic licenses could invite hucksters and taint the hard-earned reputation s of established businesses.

"I know a lot of readers in town, a lot of people who don't deserve their license," said Frank Fagley, 57, manager of The Magic Parlor. "They've got to put some kind of restriction on it."