On Saturday, Sept. 22, a new academy opened in River Falls: Buckthorn Academy of Magical Arts.
"Buckthorn" is the brainchild of Fox Den Used Books owners Heather and James Williams, their son Evan and their staff.
"My husband started it," Heather said. "He set the stage and the rest of us on staff ... started fleshing it out. Buckthorn is entirely our original creation, our own fresh new material. Pulling from mythology, local, plants, folklore.
"This story became our love song to River Falls."
Fox Den opened Buckthorn Academy for Magical Arts two Saturdays this year, Sept. 22 and Oct. 6. Heather said the event went well with about 750-780 people coming through.
"What we are doing now is the best thing for the store since we opened it," she said. "So far the community response has been really great to what we came up with this time. People have been saying they felt it was for them, that it was personal to them."
The Buckthorn story
Heather said the story is that Buckthorn Academy was called into existence because of a magical well of power in the River Falls community.
"The community created the school. There was a need for the school because of the magic in the community," she said.
Heather plays Headmistress Aradia Enfield, who had lived in the area many years ago, but left because it was not safe for people with different abilities at that time. Later she was called back to her childhood home to begin a school for magical people.
"It's a dangerous time to be untrained, so a school was needed," Heather said.
Heather and the Fox Den team put a lot of research into this magical world they've created in River Falls. They drew inspiration from local legends, other myths and legends, and even threw in a few nods to favorite fictional magical worlds.
"Every single character, there is a reason behind every single name," Heather said. "Everything was designed, everything was created, everything was researched."
The school's four "branches" were based on an ancient Irish calendar, much like an astrology calendar.
The four Buckthorn "branches" are Hathorn, Oak, Hemlock and Rowan. Those who attend Fox Den's "Buckthorn Academy of Magical Arts" events are called to one of those branches. But if someone feels a connection to a different branch, they can choose where they belong, Heather said.
"We had people become extremely invested in their branch very quickly and that was thrilling," she said.
Along with Buckthorn Academy, Fox Den also created local magical shops in the fictitious "Silver Birch Square," where people could buy magical candies, magic wands and more.
Heather said she felt people enjoyed having their own local story. One visitor told her they were excited for this event because they don't know the end of the story, but they knew they were a part of it. It was their story.
Heather said her son Evan is a "well of knowledge" when it comes to mythical and magical creatures. He put a lot of work into developing the story of Buckthorn Academy.
"In fact, Evan was the one who came up with what classes we should have as core classes," she said. "All of the main ideas that were fleshed out came from Evan."
When the volunteers actors came on as professors, they gave a lot of input into their classes and their stories.
Creating the 'magic'
Heather said the Fox Den team could not create this Magical Academy alone.
"It has been a massive team effort," Heather said.
Heather, James, Evan, and staff members Marissa Amidon, Kate Erickson and Briana Bechel did a lot of the work. Heather's father, a master carpenter, built many of the sets and props and helped create some magic, including a secret entrance to Buckthorn Academy.
The cast included:
Marissa Amidon, Keeper of the Tipsy Jackalope, the pub in Silver Birch Square.
Katie Erickson, Miss Pippa deMinthe, owner of The Peppermint Witch, local sweet shop in Silver Birch Square.
Briana Bechel, Deputy Headmistress Wren Larka
Heather Williams, Headmistress Professor Aradia Enfield
Monica LaVold, Professor Saoirse Arbor, Head of the Rowan Branch, teacher of core class Botanomancy
James Williams, Professor John Dastin, Head of the Hemlock Branch, teacher of core class Spectral Sciences
Nathan Ireland, Professor William Magnus, Head of the Hawthorn Branch, teacher of Alchemy
Nancy Miller, Professor Evangeline Aves, Head of the Oak Branch, teacher of Mythozology
Michael Ireland, Happy E'lir Kvothe, Professor Magnus' assistant.
Evan Williams, Jollyphant
"We have, by necessity, makers of magic behind the magic," said Heather.
Often operating in fairly small spaces, these volunteers are usually middle school-aged kids.
"This year we had a group of kids that stepped up so big, and that was really incredible too," Heather said.
Those behind-the-scenes magic-makers included Jenny Crooks, Tristan Wood, Maggie Johnson, Noah Follstad, Max Penustki, Britain Bernhard, Dahlia Olson, Jane Welsh, Anne Welsh and Samantha Thurston.
Heather said it was special having people come through the store and experience a story that the Fox Den team had created.
"We were all so much more at home with this story, because it's our story," she said. "It wasn't copying something else, it was all creation and it was amazing to watch people come through."
She said it also provided more creative opportunities for her staff than have been provided before.
"We didn't have to worry about anything, it was just, 'How creative do you want to be?' What came of it most is just the realization of how much this community means to me," Heather said. "I've moved a lot and I've never found a place like this before where, you know, the people in the town they care about you.
"It feels like such a time of social division. And yet I still feel like this community can count on itself and I think that what we wanted to really be saying is remember your choices matter."
She said yes, the story is an escape from reality, a creative place to enjoy and find wonder.
"I hope people found wonder and magic and suspended disbelief and beauty and all of that," Heather said. "But also kinship, and that we are more alike than not, and that this community is strong."
Looking to the future
Though the start was smaller, Fox Den hopes to expand the world of Buckthorn. A short graphic novel style story has already been created and released via Facebook to introduce people to Buckthorn. Amidon illustrated this graphic novel.
Heather said the Fox Den team also plans to develop a Buckthorn novel. That will likely take some time, she said, but the Fox Den team plans to start blogs for Buckthorn and its professors soon.
And of course, she said, Buckthorn Academy will return next year to Fox Den.