When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Opened a Psychic Bookstore

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ghost hunter.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ghost hunter. / Herbert Barraud/GettyImages

A considerable mess greeted the station sergeant who peered into London’s The Psychic Bookshop in the early morning hours of February 6, 1928. Books and papers had been pulled from shelves and tossed to the floor; drawers had been ransacked. Someone had burglarized the premises.

More importantly, someone had burglarized the pride and joy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, England’s renowned creator of Sherlock Holmes. His bookstore wasn’t focused on crime fiction, but on spiritual arcana. The author was a firm believer in the unexplained and the mystical, insisting it was possible to communicate with the dead. His belief was so strong that he spent some of his fortune and time later in life creating his spiritual bookstore, which he once proclaimed was his most important mission—though he apparently didn’t have the precognitive power to see the theft coming.

A Psychic Obsession

Sherlock Holmes may be fiction’s ultimate pragmatist. The protagonist of 56 short stories and four novels used logic and searing powers of perception to crack seemingly unsolvable crimes. Yet his creator was happy to dismiss reason and rationale when it came to his fascination with spiritualism.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 22, 1859, into a household that was impoverished and, at times, unstable. Eventually, he was able to earn his M.D., and after a brief foray as an ophthalmologist, Doyle turned to writing full-time with an emphasis on the deductive Holmes, a character he debuted in 1887. (Holmes’s use of a magnifying glass, which may have been a first in detective fiction, was inspired by Doyle’s science background.) After an eight-year sojourn from the detective—he had grown weary of him—Doyle returned to Holmes in 1901 and spent the first quarter of the 20th century as one of the most recognized and admired writers of the era.

The success of Holmes allowed Doyle to indulge in his interest in spiritualism and psychic phenomena, a curiosity that had been stirred earlier in his life after he and a friend indulged in a “thought transference” experiment. Drawing on a piece of paper that was hidden from his friend's view, Doyle was amazed to see his associate draw similar figures. Though he had once described himself as a skeptic and spiritualism as “the greatest nonsense,” Doyle became a believer and eventually convinced himself it was possible to communicate with the dead. In 1917, he published an article in Metropolitan magazine titled, in part, “My Conversion to Spiritualism.” Losing both a son and a brother and a son in 1918 and 1919, respectively, likely strengthened how he felt about connecting with the deceased.

“Apparently, from the spirit messages which I received, we are in this world chiefly for the purposes of self-improvement,” he told reporter H.C. Norris in 1925. “Our aim is the angels, and when we become like them—or rather, when we become angels ourselves—we enter heaven, which is many miles above the Earth in what is known as the seventh or outer sphere … after death we progress from one circle to another until we reach the outermost.”

Given the chance, Doyle would cite numerous examples of otherworldly activity. He insisted that he knew of a “Doctor Beale” in Exmouth who made for a fine physician despite the fact he had been dead for 80 years. “The only unusual thing about it is that he gives his orders through the mediumship of the nurse,” Doyle explained.

At one point, Doyle invited friend Harry Houdini to a séance conducted by Doyle’s second wife, Jean, in the hopes of winning over the dubious magician. Despite Jean’s attempts to communicate with Houdini’s dead mother, the illusionist was unconvinced. For one thing, his mother couldn’t write in English, as Jean was professing to do on her behalf. For another, his mother was Jewish, making Jean’s invoking of the sign of the cross puzzling. Houdini may have been unimpressed, but to Doyle, he was merely in denial: Houdini, the author believed, used psychic powers to accomplish his escapes.

Nothing could dissuade Doyle from being a believer. His greatest gaffe may have come in 1920, when he announced that he was convinced photographs taken by schoolgirls Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths were genuine depictions of garden-dwelling fairies, which came to be known as the Cottingley Fairies. The fanciful tale lent credibility to Doyle’s overall spiritualist beliefs, though the girls would admit—albeit much later—that they had faked the creatures. The fairies were simply paper cut-outs from a book.

Their admission was decades away, and no amount of skepticism could persuade Doyle that the world didn’t have some fantastical elements. He was so determined to convert naysayers that he decided to take the bold step of opening a bookstore that would specialize in spiritualism.

The Psychic Bookshop

In January 1925, Doyle sent a letter to the spiritualist magazine Light announcing his plans for a repository of literature relating to the subject. Touting its location “in one of the most central positions in London,” Doyle insisted the shop would help resolve “the complete disconnection” between the unknown world and the average person on the street.

“Nothing but psychic books will be sold, and a large stock kept in hand, while every effort will be made to meet the wants of customers,” Doyle promised. He ended the letter by soliciting donations of any duplicate titles readers may want to send along.

The Psychic Bookshop opened that spring at 2 Victoria Street in London, not far from Westminster Abbey. Light covered its debut, writing that:

“On the opening day there was no rush on the part of the public for the treasures within the shop, but a steady sprinkle of people throughout the day who bought books and pamphlets. But the windows were a magnet and by and by when these gazers from afar have overcome their initial tremors, they will enter and make their first plunge into the psychic world.”

Before long, upwards of 100 people strolled into the shop daily. Undoubtedly, some patrons were not spiritually minded but eager to meet the famous owner and author, who availed himself for questions and could often be found in his office or even stocking shelves.

“I have put everything of myself into this project, and from a business point of view I certainly did not look for any great return from the first year’s trading,” he said in 1926. “In one way, to be sure, I am losing money, for though I am working all the time it is almost exclusively on psychic books; and of course, they don’t pay. In any case I am convinced that I am doing the right thing. I intend to carry on steadily with all the energy I possess.”

Among his employees was Mary Louise Conan Doyle, the author’s eldest daughter. Doyle and his staff curated a substantial collection of titles both classic and new, which could be bought for retail price. The shop also had a selection available for lending, with readers able to borrow books for a fee. (If one could not make it to the shop, Doyle would have titles shipped to them.)

A few months later, Doyle expanded his business to include a “psychic museum” downstairs from the bookstore that housed relevant items outside of printed material. There, one could purchase a “trumpet” that was said to be the proper method for communicating with ghosts. He exhibited paintings said to be done under the influence of spirits, photos which he claimed to depict the ghosts of departed dogs, and, of course, the Cottingley Fairies images.

One exhibit seemed to trump all others: a pair of wax hands. The hands, Doyle explained, were those of a ghost who had achieved an ectoplasmic state. The entity dipped his hands in wax before he could dematerialize. Doyle insisted that the hands had to be genuine because the casts were narrow at the wrist, as though the spirit had once again become ethereal. “And he left on the table his wax gloves, in the form of these hands,” Doyle said. Nearby, a soot-covered photographic plate held what he said were a ghost’s fingerprints.

Doyle also took guidance from spirits when it came to the business of the shop. Late in 1925, he prepared to implement some new ideas for the store. A few days later, he phoned from Paris and told his employees to forget about it. The street, he said, would be under water by spring, a warning given to him by his paranormal consultants.

The street didn’t flood. In fact, the shop managed to outlive Doyle—who died in 1930—by a few years. There’s no record of how profitable it may or may not have been, but considering the esoteric subject matter and the high cost of rent in London, it was probably more of a passion project than anything. Nor is there a clear answer as to the inventory’s whereabouts. (The aforementioned thief took nothing more than stamps.) That The Psychic Bookshop existed at all is a testament to the fascination Doyle had with the afterlife, a mystery not even his great detective could ever hope to solve.