Article, photos and video by Elina Bass
A crowd gathers and stares in amazement as a quarter floats in mid-air, making graceful flips and spins in all directions. For more than a minute the coin levitates at the direction of Adam Blumenthal, a magician and the owner of Tannen’s Magic Store in Midtown Manhattan.
New York’s oldest continuously operated magic store, Tannen’s has a long history of influencing the world’s best magicians. Louis Tannen, a magician and magic-trick inventor, opened his first stand in 1925 and then traveled around New York City and the nation to sell his magic supplies.
During World War II, he joined the U.S.O. (the United Service Organizations Inc.) to perform and entertain the troops, and also opened his first store in the Wurlitzer Building, at 120 W. 42nd St., in the early 1940s. After four moves, the store is at 45 W. 34th St.
For all the worldwide growth in online and virtual interactions, the popularity of magic, a tactile skill, has been on the rise. With books like the Harry Potter series, movies including Now You See Me and TV shows like Magicians and Masters of Illusion, the demand for magic is greater than ever. In addition, social media has enabled magicians to gain greater exposure and reach wider audiences.
“Magic has surprising become so popular, I think, because it’s so rare that you really see something that happens right in front of you, that has the same dramatic pull as an incredible viral video,” said Noah Kiep, 30, an employee at Tannen’s Magic for six years. “When something floats in front of you it satisfies that same desire for immediate amazement but in the real world.”
By embracing digitization with its own website and Instagram page, Tannen’s has managed to stay modern and successful at a time when most brick-and-mortar stores are suffering. Flosso’s, which formerly held the title of oldest magic shop in New York City, went online-only 10 years ago. Tannen’s, in contrast, has developed as the epicenter of the magic community in New York City, maintaining the authenticity of the store and cultivating an online consumer base.
“Instagram is a great forum for magic; you scroll through and you see some guy doing a really cool move, like a color change, and think ‘I want to find out more about that,’” said Kiep.
Kiep started magic at age 10 and was a regular visitor to Tannen’s, where he now works full time as well as a performing magician. He credits Tannen’s success over the decades to its ability to stay plugged in and adapt to changes in customer desires. For example, it had become customary for tricks to come with instructional DVDs, but many customers no longer own DVD players. Tannen’s has adapted with extensive in-store explanations, YouTube videos and posts on its website — integrating the in-store and online experience to satisfy both old and new customers.
“There are people who order online and for that reason they are really excited when they actually get to come to the store and visit, because maybe they don’t live in New York or even the United States,” said Kiep. “Then there are people who discover the store and then as a result of that they sign up for the mailing list, even if they are local, the reason they found out about a trick because they saw a picture of it on our Instagram or they heard about it from our emailing list.”
Asher Charles, 12, visits the store twice a week after school to practice his magic. He discovered the store a few months ago and was instantly attracted to the community of magicians who can be found chatting and hanging out at the store any day of the week. He said the support he received from the store helped him grow his skills, learning more than 10 new tricks since he first visited the store.
“I’ve met a couple of magicians because of this shop, I know a few more magic places to go,” he said. “It’s pretty welcoming, all the magicians aren’t secretive, they are happy to share their knowledge.”
However, he also credited social media.
“I think that by me looking at magic and magicians on social media it inspires me to learn more magic and improve my abilities,” he said.
Charles is not the first magician to get his start at Tannen’s. David Copperfield famously begged his parents to bring him to Tannen’s as a child. Later, at the age of 19, he got his first big break with a performance at the Tannen’s Magic Jubilee. David Blaine, who broke many world records, including longest breath hold, was a regular visitor when he was growing up. Other frequent customers include Doug Henning, star of the Broadway show Doug Henning and His World of Magic and J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost and director of Star Trek and Star Wars films.
The Tannen Magic Jubilee, held each summer in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York since 1960, is dedicated to celebrating and sharing magic, as well as honoring those who achieved excellence with the “Louie Award.” Among the winners is Criss Angel, who performed in Las Vegas with Cirque du Soleil and on his own TV shows on Spike TV and NBC.
To maintain Louis Tannen’s goal of building better magicians and expanding the magic community, the store offers weekly lectures and classes, as well as Tannen’s Magic Camp. The overnight summer camp for magicians ages 12 to 20, takes place at Bryn Mawr College from July 8-15. All workshops and classes are taught be professional magicians and alumni. Organizations including the Society of American Magicians sponsor the camp, offering scholarships to those who qualify.
The outreach programs and online/in-store business model has solidified Tannen’s as an iconic institution.
“Without realizing that we are all spending a lot of time on our phones, I think people are gravitating toward magic both as viewers needing live entertainment and learners because it is really satisfying to learn a skill with your hands,” said Blumenthal, the owner. “Magic stays relevant as a physical skill set that people can learn and practice, a tactile art – so that kind of keeps it a piece of both entertainment and knowledge – even with more and more digital outlets for creativity coming up.”