A character in The Lace Reader fondly refers to Salem in the mid ‘90s as “Universal Studios Tours without the budget.” Hearses full of tourists drive slowly along the city streets. Convenience stores sell crystals and love potions. Costumed Frankensteins hand out fliers to everyone who happens by. Although Salem has been vigorously trying to change its Witch City image, the whole town’s economy is tied to its dark history, and any change at all is a hard sell. Even the police cars in Salem sport the Witch City Logo. All summer long, actors dressed up as Puritans reenact the infamous witch hunts, inviting the tourists to participate as jurors in a mock trial that usually ends up the same way, with poor Bridget Bishop hanging from the end of a rope. 

As Halloween approaches, haunted houses pop up on every corner, and the Fright Train runs from Boston to Salem several times a day. Thousands of pumpkins line the Common, their carved faces staring out from pathways and tree limbs. The Hawthorne Hotel hosts the Witches Ball. The festivities build to a crescendo as the big day arrives and, while the tourists and natives party together all night, fundamentalist preachers from all over the country try to save the souls of the revelers. 

For the most part, the true Salem witches keep a lower profile. They are a respectable group of environmentally active and concerned citizens who never existed in Salem in the old days but who thrive here in great numbers now. 

Salem Witch Trials Memorial

Those who are trying to change Salem’s image can recite many elements in its diverse history. One of the most active historic commissions in the United States stands guard over some of the best Federal and Colonial architecture anywhere, with mansions built by America’s earliest millionaires, the shipping families who launched the China trade and brought back spices from India. A strong literary tradition is apparent everywhere in town, from the Customs House where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked his day job, to Melville’s notebooks at the Peabody Essex Museum, to the very respectable manuscript collection a the Atheneum, a membership library with original books appropriated by privateers during the Revolutionary War. 

The Friendship

Salem’s history includes a number of firsts: first elephant, first millionaire, first brick house, first candy store. At one time, it was a town so rich from the shipping industry and the China Trade that the other countries of the world thought the colonies were simply part of the greater “country of Salem.”

Today Salem is a city that has come full circle, learning difficult lessons from history. Salem has become one of the most diverse and tolerant towns in America, where the witches march next to the DAR in the Heritage Day Parade with the Council on Aging and Hells Angels separated only by the Dominican American Marching Band. 

The Lace Reader takes place in Salem and the neighboring towns and islands that were once part of it, from Marblehead up the coast to Ipswich, Gloucester and the tip of Cape Ann. 

Authors note: Like everyplace else, Salem is changing. We have been discovered. The beautiful new Peabody Essex Museum has opened. The waterfront is being renovated. Many of the old houses have been snatched up and converted to condos. Salem has arrived. The Lace Reader is set in the mid 90s, before the world of the story started to change. 

Brunonia Barry