Clerkenwell shop International Magic has survived over 60 years of trickery. The EC1 Echo went to investigate the only dedicated magic shop left in London
By Oliver Bennett
International Magic, which has been trading in Clerkenwell Road since 1958, has a mission – to bring more magic into our lives. Even the unchanged 1902-vintage red painted shopfront close to Leather Lane looks like something out of a film set, while within is a cornucopia of tricks large and small, how-to books on magic, doctored top hats, old posters, pictures of past customers including Tommy Cooper, and lots of playing cards. Martin Macmillan, who runs the shop, is himself a magician who comes from a line of conjurers. His late magician father Ron, a music hall performer, started the shop, and it fell to Martin to make it his lifelong vocation.
“I came here as a kid,” he says. “When I was at school in east London, I’d just come into the shop. I was born into it.” As magic shops have dwindled, International Magic finds itself in the position of being both the last magic shop in London and the UK’s oldest magic retail shop.
“When I was young there were eight magic shops in walking distance from here” says Martin. “I could have walked between them in an afternoon, from Wardour Street to Tottenham Court Road.” Now the market for magic has been changed by the internet but this also means that International Magic has become a tourist destination. “We are the only magic shop in London so when magic-minded tourists come to town they make a beeline here.”
Despite this, magic is actually more popular than ever. “Go back 40 or 50 years, and you’d have to make an effort to learn magic,” says Martin. “Now it’s much easier, because you can go onto YouTube and learn some tricks.” That may be good, but as Martin says, “because it’s more widely done, I would say there’s also a lot more bad magic.”
Magic as entertainment has also changed. There are far fewer stage shows, but there are plenty of ‘table hoppers’ – magicians who move between guests at parties, weddings and corporate events. “This has grown tremendously because of marketing and corporate events,” says Martin, who says that “some are better than others.” It means that ‘close-up magic’ is more popular.
There’s been movement at the other end of the scale too – blockbusting shows by the likes of David Blaine, Penn and Teller and David Copperfield – while there’s another tendency, like Derren Brown, for the more psychological end of magic. “A good thinker,” says Martin. “He definitely popularised what we call ‘mental magic’ and it’s not all sleight of hand now.” Harry Potter has also helped.
The big sellers are the simple tricks, says Martin, demonstrating a few off-the-shelf tricks at the counter, where seemingly empty bags produce an endless stream of boxes and unprinted packs of cards suddenly show their colours. The point is, says Martin, that we all need a little bit more magic, particularly in depressing times. “Magic is something that will always arouse curiosity.”
International Magic, 89 Clerkenwell Road EC1 Call 020 7405 7324