The Tarot Shoppe is hidden at the back of a shadowy corridor off Main Street in Ventura. New Age books and incense may not appeal to everyone, but the store’s location seems ideal for allowing occult enthusiasts to browse in peace. Yet, since it opened in 2003, owner Scott Feldman had been receiving an average of 20 to 30 phone calls per week from religious groups opposed to his business.

“They say things like, ‘You’re going to hell,’ and make other threats, nothing violent,” Feldman said. “What’s more frustrating is the fact that I haven’t been making enough money to restock the store.” It’s unsurprising that economic decline hits particularly hard for occult businesses, which often struggle to stay open, even in better times.

Moments after this conversation took place, a middle-aged couple entered and inquired about a Tarot card reading. They had come from New Mexico to California looking for insight into their daughter’s past life. Feldman found this unusual, but made an appointment for the following afternoon.

Apparently, clients who will go the distance for help aren’t uncommon. Bunny Vreeland, a Ventura County hypnotherapist, once had a man fly over from Switzerland seeking help with job concerns. Another client of hers lives on a boat near Seattle and does phone sessions. “They turned their lives around!” she said. “Not to sound arrogant, but if you get results, travel is worth it.”

It’s difficult to measure whether hard times have caused an increase or decrease in demand because, unlike physicians, alternative health professionals and spiritual practitioners rarely retain clients for long periods of time. “Psychiatrists sometimes see clients for nine years or more,” Vreeland said. “I think the longest I’ve seen is 12 weeks, but that’s not typical. People don’t stay around, but I’m still busy.”

Most of Feldman’s customers for Tarot readings are drop-ins. “Since I don’t use the answering machine anymore, and screen calls, people come in when they have time,” he said. “Occasionally, they’ll return if I’m really helping them.”

Long-distance or local, economic strain has influenced the questions that clients have brought to the table over the past few years. “When I first started out, it was simpler. Smoking and weight were the biggest concerns,” Vreeland said.

“Stress relief and critical life decisions top the list these days.” Feldman sums up his most common inquiries in a single word: “Relationships.”

Who are these customers? Probably someone you know — both hypnotherapy and occult practices attract people from myriad walks of life. “I’ve got a doctor coming in who is obsessed with someone,” Vreeland said. “I see athletes who want to improve their game, women who are contemplating divorce, and all kinds of bizarre phobias.”

Widespread interest means that occasionally, unstable people come knocking. “This Canadian woman wanted to kill her husband, and asked me to hypnotize her into forgetting what happened when the police came,” Vreeland said. “When I refused, she posted 1,200 complaints about me online and accused me of fraud.”

Education standards for alternative health professionals vary by state, making it easier for disgruntled clients to cause trouble. “There are weekend courses that let anyone hang a shingle and call themselves a hypnotherapist,” Vreeland said.

“But for clinical hypnotherapy, you have to go before a state board to get registered. Still, insurance companies are inconsistent about what they’ll cover, and especially in these times, people want guarantees and proof.”

Many of Vreeland’s ‘craziest session’ stories are humorous. “I did a past-life regression for a man who was terrified of churches,” she said. “I took him back to when he was a 3-year-old boy and unable to get his mom to take him to the bathroom at church. Before I knew it, I had this 55-year-old man writhing in his chair, yelling, ‘Mommy, potty!’ He couldn’t believe that such a small, embarrassing memory had been controlling his life!”

Whether they’re frightening or funny, situations like these have taught Vreeland a lot about the value of her work. “If you’re dealing with anxiety or fear, it’s like swallowing a hand grenade,” she said. “Eventually, it’ll explode, and you’ll need help tracing that release back to its original source. People come to me because hypnosis gets to the issue right away.”