The Sad Death of the Magic Shop

Eugene Burger
Originally published in MAGIC Magazine, May, 2005

I was talking with my friend Jack Gould recently about the many magic shops that were found in Chicago during our teen years in the 1950s. In the downtown (“Loop”) area alone there were five.

Abbott’s Magic had a branch store in the famous Woods Building on Randolph Street (designed by the famous architect, Louis Sullivan, but now long gone to make space for the Art Institute’s theater building). In Chicago, Abbott’s began in a single space but then the store moved to a larger, double space. Jack Gould worked there as a demonstrator during his teen years and it was in the Abbott’s store where we first met.

Down the street on Randolph was the Treasure Chest, a large arcade filled with the game machines of the day. There was a small magic counter stocked with beginner’s magic and which, over time, had many notable magicians working behind it, including Ed Marlo who, during this time, created many magician-fooling routines with standard items such as the Ball and Vase and Color Vision. Some of these routines can be found in Jon Racherbaumer’s book, Arcade Dreams.

For a time in the 1950s, the Treasure Chest also had a second shop, the“Pro Shop,” on the second floor. Here were found more expensive pieces of stage magic. For a time it was managed by Don Alan. Visiting the Pro Shop was always exciting because you were usually the only customer. The shop was opened only when a “real” magician-customer appeared. I still remember the thrill when I was fourteen and Don sold me a French Guillotine and suggested we print out a newspaper headline downstairs that said, “Burger Goofs.”

One block over at 30 West Washington was Joe Berg’s shop. It was the first real magic shop I ever visited. Theo Bamberg worked for Joe at that time and so the shelves were lined with colorful and exotic Okito masterpieces.

Around the corner at 109 N. Dearborn was the Ireland Magic Company presided over by the amazing Frances Ireland (soon to be “Marshall”). Her wonderful book, You Don’t Have to Be Crazy, introduced me to this new world of magicians. I began learning all the characters names. One thing about the magicians, as she said, is that they all smiled and laughed a lot. Frances, I must add, was also very patient with teenagers who had been bitten by the magic bug.

Here were four magic stores and, interestingly, they were all located in a two block area. Except for the Treasure Chest, they were all located in the upper floors of office buildings. In order to visit them, you had to know in advance that they were there. And all of them were magic stores: they didn’t sell costumes or make-up or gifts or doggy doo. They sold magic to magicians.

A few blocks away was the National Magic Company located in a not well visited area on the mezzanine level of the Palmer House Hotel. While some hotel guests might drop in out of curiosity, it was also primarily a store for magicians, noted for its metal plated effects, some of which had been commissioned in Chicago but most, I think, primarily imported from Europe.

Today there are no magic shops in Chicago’s downtown area.

Honestly, I have never understood the economics of magic shops today or during the 1950s. The number of magicians was smaller then than today and still many of the shops (in Chicago and other major cities) were not located at street level with attractive displays to lure customers.

It is true that each shop had, more or less, its own material to sell: The Pro Shop carried the entire U. F. Grant (later Mac Magic) catalog along with some other major companies. Abbott’s had its own line of magic. Ireland’s and Joe Berg had many items they produced. There was, of course, some items that everyone carried (Silk King Studio’s silks, for example) but walking into a magic shop in the 1950s was quite different from walking into one today. Whereas today, when one visits a magic shop, with a few exceptions one is struck by the sameness of what is being sold; in the 1950s, one was struck by the differences.

Another difference was that in the 1950s the stores were staffed by magicians with knowledge. My friend Jack, in fact, was the only teenage demonstrator in any of the shops – and he was an excellent card technician with a love for apparatus magic. And if there was something he didn’t know, George Coon, the magician-manager of the Abbott’s shop, was there to add his expertise.

Because there were usually adult magicians behind the counters, teenagers (and older magicians too!) often found themselves in the enviable situation where they received not only knowledge but also guidance. One many occasions I walked into Ireland’s or Joe Bergs with a dream list in my hand and money in my pocket only to be told, “You know, Eugene, that trick really isn’t going to be that good for you. Here’s something that I think you’ll be able to handle better.” And the “something” being suggested was very often less expensive than the item I thought I wanted. It was very different from today’s, “Write a check and take anything you want” attitude. As I experienced the sales styles and techniques of both Joe Berg and Frances Marshall, sales were obviously important; but also important was guiding budding magicians and creating relationships of trust.

As magicians realize they can save money by purchasing magic from dealers on the Internet (who do not have the expenses of renting a store and lights and heat and various forms of insurance), more and more magic shops say they are struggling and many are closing. Do I think they will all die and close? No, not at all. I think some will survive.

But with the closings, I think something more than a store is being lost. Magic stores were places of social congregation where, as my friend Jack and I discovered, lifelong friendships were formed. They were places where knowledge could be exchanged – not the armchair knowledge of many “authorities” on the Internet who have little real experience performing magic, but rather the knowledge that comes from thousands and thousands of actual performances. And finally the magic shops of my youth were places of guidance and places of inspiration – and, I must add, guidance from people who knew me as a real person and not as lineless words over the Internet. Guidance and inspiration are qualities seldom found where the sole exchange is monetary.

Honestly, I would like to have magic shops in my community. I might save a few dollars on a particular Internet purchase but, over the course of a year, I might spend hundreds of dollars on magic I would never have purchased at all if I had seen it first. Of course, Web sites like MyLovelyAssistant.com, with honest and candid reviews, give hope to give us some help in purchasing magic we haven’t seen. Yet, of all the things on this planet that one might purchase sight-unseen, I think magic tricks are among the most scary. Buying magic without seeing it first can be a wasteful and costly business — because sometimes the most deceptive thing about the trick is the ad that caused us to make our purchase.