why would this book store be haunted by the ghosts of Salem's past?
We all know that Salem is one of the spookiest cities in America. With its wicked, witchy history and eerie experiences, it’s a must-see for those interested in the supernatural.
And, for bibliophiles, there’s Wicked Good Books – Salem’s flagship bookstore. Located above Salem’s underground tunnel system, Wicked Good Books is a hotspot for haunted happenings. Evidence of human remains was even discovered in the tunnels underfoot, leading some to investigate Salem’s subterranean space. Into spine-chilling suspense? You’ll find it above or beneath Salem’s Wicked Good Books.
Today Wicked Good Books occupies 215 Essex Street, the former location of Derby Square Bookstore. Denise Kent opened Wicked Good Books in June 2013, renovating Salem’s last independent bookstore into the uncluttered, eclectic space that it is today. Its predecessor, Derby Square, was a beloved yet befuddling shop: infamous for ten-foot-high towers of text, picking a book was like playing life-size Jenga.
"The books were piled high. The walls were hidden by stacks and stacks of books. If you pulled a book out the wrong way, the piles could collapse.” Kent recounts in “Shelf-Awareness.” Kent even recalls how, behind the teetering turrets of books, she and her husband discovered a fireplace. Talk about a peculiar reveal for Kent’s renovation!
Perilous, precarious – yet Derby Square was as respected as it was revered. The Munroe Family had owned Derby Square for thirty-nine years. Although some customers found the space claustrophobic, others decided that Derby Square was a bibliophile’s dream.
Wicked Good Books, however, had a different approach in mind: spacious, with a staircase and uncommon counter. A little less “thrill of the hunt,” though free from harm. Derby Square also specialized in used books, and Kent wanted to provide recent publications amongst trending or topical texts: "People loved the used books, and I think they're a great value," Kent adds, “but people should also have the option to walk in and pick up whatever's on the bestseller list.”
Yet Wicked Good Books offers more than literature, too. Although they inherited Derby Square’s merchandise, Wicked Good Books supplements their stock with mugs, toys, t-shirts, keepsakes, and collectibles.
With their marketing and memorabilia, you could say that Wicked Good Books doubles as a novelty shop. There’s something here for everyone. Plus, Wicked Good Books hosts readings by local authors.
Wicked Good Book’s haunted history? That’s just a bonus.
During Wicked Good Book’s renovation, a tunnel system was discovered underground. The system connects to a warehouse in Derby Square, leading some to believe that the tunnels were used to transport people and goods. The system was also used, some think, for speakeasies – illegal liquor stores or “smuggler’s house.”
Christopher Jon Luke Dowgin hypothesizes the tunnels’ history in Salem Secret Underground: The History of the Tunnels in the City. “From the various wharves,” writes Dowgin, “goods were smuggled through trap doors into the tunnels that led to the merchants’ and ship captains’ homes.” The tunnels, Dowgin suspects, stored merchandise that was later relocated to the shopfronts of Essex Street.
Dowgin likewise believes that the underground system was built in 1801 by the son of Elias Hasket Derby, post-Revolutionary merchant of Salem. Fun Fact: Elias Hasket Derby, “King Derby,” was America’s first millionaire!
The Derbys were wealthy privateers, so the subterranean space may have allowed them to bypass tariffs imposed by President Jefferson. The tunnels may have additionally assisted senators, congressmen, and the Superior Court Justice in tax evasions. Transfer cargo, avoid customs? Salem’s underground system was a shoo-in for smugglers. They’ve even been connected to the Secretary of the Navy.
Bootlegging wasn’t the only benefit of the underground system, however. The tunnels provided ease-of-access and hush-hush passage, thereby allowing “gentlemen” to maintain their privacy while frequenting Salem’s brothels. Prostitution was especially prolific on Derby Street, whose waterfront provided sailors access to the South River. The underground system likewise allowed sea captains to “shanghai” young men, kidnapping them into service as crew members.
Salem’s Secret Underground expounds upon the tunnels, recording how “Captains had discreet tunnels into the brothels to meet up with the ladies and a good escape route during a raid [...] These tunnels provided means to shanghai sailors.” Salem’s Secret Underground even adds that “as late as the 1950s, this was an area fathers would warn their daughters to avoid so they would not be mistaken for the ladies of the night.” Salem’s subterranean space was a far cry from their puritan history.
Christopher Jon Luke Dowgin has a few more theories in mind, however. In Salem Secret Underground: The History of the Tunnels in the City, Dowgin explains how Salem’s subterranean system may have operated as an Underground Railroad. The tunnels, Dowgin offers, may have helped escaped slaves.
Scott Kearnan agrees, adding that the “underground tunnels once connected [...] building around downtown Salem, and some of them were used as part of the underground railroad – leading to rumors that some slaves were unsuccessfully speaking freedom were buried there.”
Perhaps this is why some suspect that two runaway slaves were later entombed in the tunnels.
Yet Christopher Dowgin also suspects that the subterranean system is haunted: ‘“I just barely lifted my cell phone from its case on my belt when the phone flew twenty-five feet into an open manhole,” Dowgin comments in Sam Baltrusis’ Ghosts of Salem: Haunts of the Witch City. The manholes are associated with the subterranean tunnels, linking Salem’s wharf to Salem’s suburbia.
Dowgin and Baltrusis add that the batteries of electronics “mysteriously drain” near the wharf while orbs show up regularly in images. Seafarers are spotted as “full-bodied apparitions,” aimlessly ambling Derby Wharf. Visitors report cold spots near the tunnels as well as other signs of supernatural activity – such as the sounds of disembodied voices or footsteps.
When asked if Wicked Good Books was haunted, Denise Kent reached out to the New England Ghost Project. Ghost Project’s investigator, Ron Kolek, decided to see for himself.
Kolek was immediately interested in the tunnel underfoot. And, with the crew of Ghost Chronicles Radio, two physics, and an investigator, Kolek set out to search for the supernatural. One psychic, Maureen Wood, alleged that she could perceive a benign presence. Evidence of human remains was likewise found in the underground system, though they remained unidentified.
Poltergeist activity has also been witnessed: spirits are spotted, apparitions appear. Books fly off the shelves, presumably moved by unseen specters. Ghosts of Salem’s Sam Baltrusis even reported “shadow figures” on Essex Street.
On WCVB, Denise Kent recalled how one paranormal investigator felt a “warm, welcoming presence.” Yet the sensation “shifted,” and the investigator felt hands around his neck. Kent reminded WCVB that the structure is over two-hundred years old, so it’s bound to have some hair-raising history.
Wicked Good Books isn’t the only haunted hotspot of Essex Street. You’ll also find Salem’s Ropes Mansion, former film location for Disney’s Hocus Pocus.
A must-see for Halloween aficionados, the Ropes Mansion is even spookier off-screen. Built by Samuel Bernard in the later 1720s, the Ropes Mansion later housed Judge Nathaniel Ropes. Yet Ropes died from smallpox the day after the Ropes Mansion was mobbed, leading the superstitious to suspect that the house is haunted. Rick and Georgette Stafford, former caretakers of the mansion, even claim to have caught Nathaniel Ropes on film: the image, taken during an insurance appraisal, reveals two hands of a man seated on a couch.
You’ll also find Salem’s infamous “Witch House” on Essex Street. You won’t find any witches here, however... The house was home to Judge Jonathan Corwin of Salem’s Witch Trials. The Witch House was likewise associated with the trial’s preliminary examinations, though there are no records that indicate if the examinations occurred in the home.
We now know that the trials had more to do with bigotry than with black magic: witchcraft was never proven. Judge Corwin was nevertheless responsible for the executions of nineteen “convicted witches” – making the Witch House a spooky sojourn.Visiting Wicked Good Books
If you’re on the lookout for literature, Wicked Good Books guarantees a good time. With an inventory from the timeless to the topical, there’s something there for everyone. You can also join one of the bookstore’s reading clubs! In the words of Cicero, “a room without books is like a body without a soul.” Maybe Cicero was into ghosts, too?
You can find Wicked Good Books on 215 Essex Street! They’re open from 11-5. Although they’re small, they stay well-stocked. And, like Derby Square Bookstore, Wicked Good Books accommodates requests from customers. You can even buy merchandise that features their logo. Buy for yourself or buy for your friends!
Be sure to check out their calendar, too, so you can stay up-to-date on events and readings. Don’t forget to let us know if you encounter any paranormal activity!