I'm in Salem for some R&R prior to the AHA in Boston. I visited once before, during the World History Association conference in 2009. It's different in the winter, less crowded but still very pretty. The houses along Chestnut and Essex Streets are a museum row of beautiful federal architecture.
Having just finished John Cheever's Wapshot Chronicle, Salem seems much like the fictional St Botolph's of that novel. A coastal Massachusetts town, which has outlived its glory days in seafaring. (Salem was also presumably the inspiration for John Updike's Eastwick. I looked for a fountain to throw a coin into - but found none, alas).
Salem's other claim to fame, sadly overshadowed in public view by the witches, is its role in bringing trade goods from Asia to the American market. The Peabody Essex Museum has a wonderful collection, which originated with artefacts brought back from Asia, and later, the South Pacific (where Salem's connexion was primarily through the first America missionaries; nineteenth-century whaling being more the domain of ports like Nantucket). Indeed, Salem wasn't a suitable port for those bigger ships that emerged in the industrial revolution, leaving it to fade in trade and historic importance. The slow economic decline of a port town is something I've studied in other parts of the world - particularly Malacca. Indeed, Malacca was one of the destinations for ships from Salem during their period of dominance in the China trade. My article, "Finding the Pacific World", which is to be published in the Journal of World History in March, looks at the historic moment of trade fortunes and a focus on the Pacific, not just for Salem, but for explorers and traders from Europe.
During my stay, I also visited the House of the Seven Gables.
The house was the setting for Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel of the same name. Hawthorne's family was linked over generations to everyone else in Salem, including a forebear who was involved in the witch trials. He hated his colleagues at the Customs House, lampooned them in print, moved to another town to get away from them: and yet drew the inspiration for his books from this town he hated/loved. A town which now claims him proudly as a favourite son - a reputation he never had in life.
His novels helped create the public image of Salem's past. When I first visited, I was very excited to first see the gold eagle atop the Customs House, described in the Scarlet Letter. The House of the Seven Gables was in fact rebuilt by its benefactress (who rescued it from demolition 100 years ago) not authentically to its original design, but to the fictionalised description of the house in Hawthorne's novel. Thus are fiction and fact linked in the presentation of the past, as the house is a museum not only to 18th-century trade wealth, but the 20th-century popularity of a 19th-century novelist.
The house also has the magic bedwarmer which you may recall from Bewitched
The National Parks Service maintain maritime Salem as a historic site, and offer tours. The Peabody Essex also owns some historic houses, which are open to visitors. (Neither of these organisations runs the various "witch" museums scattered around town, which I did not visit).
If you are looking for more contemporary wicca/occult/psychic paraphernalia, Salem is your place. I feel uncomfortable with the victims of the witch craze - who were victims - being held as icons by those who want to believe in various magic. (If they were witches, then they were not victims, but GUILTY of the crimes of which they were accused!). Very strange... It also seems to me quite tacky to be making money off the horrific deaths of women (and a few men) at the hands of a misogynistic legal system (as with the offensive "Witch's Wit" beer label, justly savaged by Tenured Radical). This is the unfortunate alley of "public history" which Salem has embraced/endured in its tourism, but scratch the surface and there is much more to see in this lovely city.