International Magic ShopCollaborative Unit
“Magic is a small world”, were the words of Martin MacMillan, the owner of the International Magic shop near Chancery Lane. Magicians operate within a tiny community, to the point that even if one magician does not know another, they almost certainly know someone else who does. And in London, most magicians will have at some point passed through this shop.
I have visited the shop with my good friend and a professional magician Alex Foden. Alex went straight to business, purchasing a few packs of cards, including a pack of blanks and some assorted dongles and thingamagigs for his close up routines. Meanwhile, I had the chance to look around the shop.
Not really knowing what to expect coming in, I still can’t say I was surprised by the general decor. The look of this real life magic shop would not have been out of place in the Diagon Alley, with black and burgundy paint contrasting against shelves loaded with assorted magic supplies. The walls were lined with signed pictures of famous magicians, the bookshelves had giant, ancient-looking tomes thrown in and signage was hand-written on miniature playing cards. The shop had built a fascinating sense of atmosphere around it, browsing the shelves felt like exploring an entirely different world altogether.
We bumped into Martin (the owner) as Alex was showing me around the different displays and I took the opportunity to ask him for an impromptu interview. Now I had no idea I would be doing this heading in so I was about as unprepared as the lovely, lovely man. That being said, after a slightly rough, deer-in-the-headlights-mounted-onto-another-deer start, we did manage to steer the ‘interview’ into a very pleasant, friendly chat about the shop.
The business was established in 1962 by Ron MacMillan and is still family-operated. The shop hosts a number of events, from monthly talks and lectures from visiting magicians to full magic courses for beginners and its own annual magic convention.
The sheer number of items on display is quite impressive. The selection of fancy cards is bonkers, though I’m told that most magicians tend to use simple, cheap decks on account of quite a few tricks that make cards disposable. These cards tend to be sold for private collections rather than performances. The shop sells props, instruction DVDs, books, ready-made tricks (complete with instruction manuals and an oath of secrecy) and what appears to be a sizable selection of joke items. Martin points out that it has become standard practice for most magic shops to sell joke items as well since the public sees the two as closely related.
The place is popular with professional and hobbyist magicians but is frequented by new learners and lay people as well. To Martin, this is reflected in very different types of customers. While the more seasoned patrons come in already knowing what to look for – they walk up to the counter and ask for some flash paper, a couple of foam balls or a shiny card deck. Others are more clueless. They come in for advice, to find literature or new tricks to pick up. Martin seems generally happy to talk to the customers, offer tips and even demonstrate the tricks on sale. This approachability helps foster a small community within the shop as people often stop by just to talk to the other magicians and socialise.
This to me presented an interesting scenario where attempting to keep the secrets of the trade could result in potentially alienating some of the customers. How do you keep yourself accessible by the public while also keeping large chunks of your displays away from prying eyes? Would secret keeping not be an issue with all the books on display – don’t customers end up learning some of the secrets just by browsing? Martin did not see this as an issue. To him, there is a lot more to understanding magic then simply reading about a trick while browsing a shelf. Being able to understand and perform a trick from a book takes a lot of reading and substantial practice, especially when it comes to the more advanced illusions like mentalism. For the simpler tricks this could well be the case but it’s far from being a big concern, especially in an age where people can simply look the tricks up on the internet.
The shop stocks more than just items on sale though. In fact, a part of it are collections and displays that contribute to the atmosphere. I have mentioned the large, tremendously old books sticking out of the ranks of volumes already on sale, accompanied by pristine limited prints – often not even taken out of their foil – that Martin sees as private and valuable items. Others items are on sale but hardly sellable. A beautifully designed black box placed in one of the displays caught my attention. When asked about the item, I was told that it’s something akin to an electronic card trick and that it’s priced at over £400. Both Martin and Alex found my unwitting exclamation of ‘JESUS WHAT’ amusing, and were quick to point out that these items are usually more useful for collections and for showing off to your fellow magicians than they are for performances.
I have managed to find the item on the internet (with some difficulty) and it turns out to be a form of mind reading card trick, enabling the magician to guess what card the audience has picked without ever having to touch the pack or even being in the same room. Which is impressive stuff at an impressively questionable price.
That said, I could hardly leave without a souvenir and Martin was happy to help me choose. We went for simple tricks for beginners and after ruling out a few card tricks, I ended up buying this: