October 13, 2010 / 2:10 PM / 9 years ago

Small businesses find comfort in superstitions

CHICAGO (Reuters) - When Dolly Claxton needs help selling a house in a down market, she turns to St. Joseph. The Seattle-area realtor admitted to occasionally planting a statuette of the religious icon in the ground under a property she’s trying to move.

Phil Cates, a California mortgage broker who runs a side business selling tiny religious figurines of St. Joseph, is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/handout

“Everybody here on earth needs a little help,” said Claxton, who has been selling residential properties for 30 years through good times and bad. “For the most part I believe it’s worked.”

Claxton is not alone. The St. Joseph's ritual is widely practiced in real estate circles - by Catholics, non-Catholics and even some atheists - according to Phil Cates, a Modesto, California mortgage broker. He should know; since 1990 he has made a tidy side business of selling the 4-inch-high sandstone statuettes, which are available online at StJosephsStatue.com (www.stjosephstatue.com).

Joseph, who was a carpenter, has long been associated with providing safe harbor; the real estate tradition is apparently an extension of that belief. Also considered the Patron Saint of Workers, he is the one many turn to when looking for a job, making him even more popular during the latest economic downturn.

“Most people are a little bit hesitant about talking about burying a St. Joe. They think they’ll be labeled as a wacko,” said Cates, who added he sells “tens of thousands” of the figurines annually that retail for $9.95 each and jokingly refers to the character as “St. Joe the underground real estate agent.”

Sales in the past year or two have been especially brisk in hard-pressed housing markets such as Arizona, Florida and California, he said. “They may not be talking to their rabbi or their imam, but everybody is doing this.”


Maintaining spiritual beliefs or superstitions that cross into the business world may be more common than not, especially in turbulent times, said Adam Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management who has studied decision-making in business.

“Research shows superstitions are an activity we engage in to feel more in control of our environment,” he said. “Rituals are a buffering mechanism.”

Galinsky said it’s likely that adherence to superstitions may have risen during the recent recession, noting that during the Great Depression and even the 1960s, a time of social unrest, interest increased.

Even so, many small businesses owners are hesitant to admit their superstitions, fearful they may be cast as unprofessional by clients and customers.

Sue Sattler, owner of a Waukesha, Wisconsin placement agency specializing in financial services, was initially reluctant to talk about the role numerology played in her business, even though she said she’s not a serious believer.

Last year, after a tenant down the hall moved out of the commercial office building she rents from, Sattler asked the leasing agent to switch the numbers on her office door with those from the vacant space. She went to No. 206 from 204, even though the switch disrupted the building’s sequencing. The reason? Adding her new digits together equals eight, a lucky number, according to numerologists.

“I was so embarrassed,” said Sattler, recalling the day she made the request. “I was probably the talk of their office that day. It was funny.”

Charles Eric Gordon, a solo attorney in Manhattan, makes no excuses for the pictures of Rasputin, the 19th Century Russian mystic, that adorn his office. A peasant whose life was shrouded in mystery, Rasputin was believed to possess psychic and healing powers.

Gordon, who specializes in investigative law and is often hired to track down missing persons, said he gets a good feeling just having the likeness on the wall.

“I’m not a New Age person. I don’t wear copper. I’m inspired by him,” Gordon confessed. “I have friends, clients, judges who come by. If I’m asked about it, I’ll give a full explanation.”


Patty Tobin, owner of an upscale jewelry boutique in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, admitted to regularly cleansing her shop of negative energy. She places roses - believed to absorb bad vibes - and frequently burns a special mix of herbs. Black smoke, she said, means negative energy is moving out the door.

A 4-inch sandstone replica of St. Joseph is seen in this undated handout photo. California mortgage broker Phil Cates sells the figurines to superstitious realtors on his website StJosephStatue.com. REUTERS/handout

“The overarching thing for me is mind over matter,” said Tobin, a former marketing consultant who began designing jewelry six years ago. “It’s the whole idea of moving energy and making a situation a little more auspicious toward whatever goal you’re trying to accomplish.”

Tobin, who said she is a positive person by nature, also keeps a stone Buddha in her store, a gift from her brother provided in time for last year’s opening.

“We had magnificent sales that night,” she said, noting that overall sales of her merchandise have done well despite the economy.

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