For years, Lady Rhea has offered spiritual advice to her clients. Unlike most botanicas in the Bronx, she draws from many pagan religions, not just Christianity.
“It’s more of a spiritual center than just a store,” she said.
Her magic shop on Webster Avenue, which is a block away from Fordham University, lies within a larger botanica called Original Products. Many customers come seeking enchanted candles, her specialty. Others seek romantic or medical advice.
“Hello doll-face,” she said to a customer while sprinkling glitter on a candle.
Rhea, 58 and Italian-American, is just over five feet tall, with blond hair falling on the sides of her glasses. A pentagram hangs from her neck, over her powder-blue sweater.
A gay, Wiccan high priestess, Rhea Bila owns the shop with her partner, Sandra Rivera. They’ve been at the Webster Avenue location for four years.
Magickal Realms consists of a glass countertop, in a 64-square foot space. Inside the countertop, there are stones, necklaces and rings for sale.
While many botanicas in the area sell Catholic products, her shop has T-shirts depicting Hindu gods, as well as voodoo kits and other pagan items.
Being an Italian-American witch in a mostly Catholic, Hispanic area, doesn’t phase Rhea one bit.
“It’s very important to the rest of the community, especially the black and Hispanic and the island community, coming in and finding a little Italian lady running around saying ‘I know what this is, and look at this! There are other things to look at.’ It gives a great sense of comfort and it starts knocking down some of the barriers that have been built for so long.”
She gets annoyed at clients who call her, asking if it’s safe to come to the Fordham neighborhood.
“The stereotyping has to stop with people, it really does,” she said.
Her goal, she says, is to draw people from the outer boroughs to her temple upstairs, which she calls the Pagan Center of New York. She plans to offer Buddhism classes for as low as $10.
Rhea, who lives in Pelham Bay Park, farther north in the Bronx, said her fascination with Wicca started when she bought a crystal ball in Brooklyn Heights. After that, she opened her own shop called Enchanted Candles. She also wrote a book on mixing oils, called The Enchanted Formulary. According to the biography on her website, she has self-published over 20,000 copies.
On a shelf on the back wall, there are candles covered in glitter. Adjacent, there is a wall of oils, with labels such as “Sure to Win,” “Win at Court,” or “Erotic.”
Standing behind the counter, Rhea takes customers, settles the register, taps out numbers a pink calculator and takes swigs off coffee, all in about two minutes.
“They call me the ‘little mouse’,” she says. She got the nickname because she’s quick like a mouse, and points to a plush toy mouse on top of the incense rack.
Sandy Simmons sits in one of the worn plastic chairs next to the countertop, waiting for her bi-monthly psychic reading.
Simmons, 65, a nurse, has been coming for about 30 years.
“We’re living in the end times and people are just looking for answers,” she said. Churchgoers who don’t feel comfortable with the church instruction come to the shop.
The readings aren’t the only reason Simmons comes. Rhea and Sandy have shared cooking recipes, home remedies and books.
“It feels like family,” she said.
The people standing in line are as diverse as the Bronx itself. There are men and women, black and Hispanic, young and old.
“Can you speak to this nice lady for me?” Rhea asks Jeremy, her bilingual assistant. A small Hispanic woman wants a specific candle, but Rhea’s minimal Spanish isn’t enough this time.
Younger generations of blacks and Latinos looking to break away from their parent’s religion come to her shop to inquire about Wicca, she said.
“They find this a very comfortable avenue for them to explore comparative religions,” Rhea said.
Jeremy Cancel, 21, said that working for Rhea has changed his life.
His slender hands carve an image into a white candle. The green rosary around his neck shifts as he moves.
“She’s like a mother to me,” he said.
When Cancel first started working as Rhea’s assistant five years ago, he was depressed. He wasn’t doing well in math, and he had trouble socializing at school, he said.
Being pagan was just another thing that set him apart. His family practices Santeria, but they didn’t want him practicing at such a young age.
Rhea helped him meditate and focus on his dreams, while keeping his family tradition of Santeria alive.
What Jeremy likes about Rhea is that she doesn’t kid her customers.
“She helps people because she doesn’t beat around the bush,” he said.
He recalls a woman who came in hoping to spice her love life. Instead of sending her off with a product, Rhea suggested a new haircut or a new outfit.
“A lot of them don’t want to hear the truth,” he said with authority. They’re just looking for the magical quick fix, he said.
After closing up shop around 5:30 p.m., she walks out into the drizzly night. Using a different entrance, she climbs a flight of stairs to their temple. The purple stairway leads up to a floor filled with Native American statues, candles and religious pictures.
In the temple, she plans to teach Buddhism classes, and currently has a card-reading room, and a jewelry shop. She’s also merged her Wiccan religion with Santeria, calling it “Wiccaria,” in which people practicing Santeria can offer vegan, or non-animal sacrifices, to their gods.
She wants people to know that her shop embraces all constructive religions.
“I consider myself global,” she said. When she embraced paganism 36 years ago, she become more open to all of the different names under the pagan umbrella.
At the end of any day, Rhea said that products aren’t the only things customers should leave with.
Lady Rhea remembered one woman who was about to lose custody of her son, and was looking for an enchanted candle to help her, she said.
“Kick the freaking door open and get your kid,” she said she told the woman, who was going to court.
“You don’t need a candle for that.”