Miracles on 34th Street
The first thing David Ferst did was ask me for a quarter. To prove that he was working with just an ordinary quarter, he had me initial the coin with a Sharpie pen and memorize the date. (It was an Oklahoma 2008 state quarter.) I closed my hand around the coin, as instructed.
“I want you to concentrate on the coin,” he said, looking me in the eye. “When I count to three, the coin is going to get a little warmer. One, two, three. Do you feel it getting warmer?”
Was my palm getting warmer? Or was I just starting to sweat? He started talking faster.
“I’m going to move your heartbeat down your arm on the count of three. One, two, three. Isn’t that amazing?”
I did not feel any such thing, but decided to nod and play along.
“Open your hand. Did you see something happen? Look at the coin.”
Now for the reveal: my coin, the 2008 Oklahoma state quarter with my initials on it, was bent in half. Fine; now I was impressed.
Entering Tannen’s Magic Store, where Ferst, a bespectacled thirty-six-year-old who goes by “Magic Dave,” is an instructor, feels a little bit like experiencing that coin trick. Much like the quarter, the shop’s home, a narrow, under-construction building on West 34th Street, wedged between an H & M and a Foot Locker, does not look like much at first. During the elevator ride to the sixth floor and a subsequent long walk down a lackluster hallway, you’re not really sure what you’re about to see, but you don’t expect much. And then the reveal: the appearance of Tannen’s Magic Store, the oldest such shop in New York City, where amateur and professional magicians alike have come to buy, sell, trade and learn tricks since 1925.
Tannen’s showroom does not look particularly magical or flashy– in fact, it is rather unassuming and quiet. On the left-hand side, upon entering, there’s an artful display of props like swords and wooden boxes. To the right are shelves of instructional books, and straight ahead are rows of metal drawers that hold hundreds of tricks and gimmicks, from counterfeit cards to fake doves. Above the doorway is a tribute to the ultimate master of magic: a pair of metal handcuffs once used on stage by Harry Houdini.
But it isn’t really the store’s appearance that makes it special, it’s the very fact that it still exists. Most brick-and-mortar magic shops have gone the way of Flosso’s, which formerly held the title of oldest magic shop in New York City. Flosso’s opened in 1872, but went online-only last decade. Other legends, like Circle Magic, closed decades earlier. These days, “it’s very rare to actually be able to see and feel the magic you are about to buy,” says Adam Blumenthal, Tannen’s owner.
Blumenthal, a twenty-nine-year-old olive-skinned man with a crop of dark hair, can be found behind the counter at Tannen’s day-in and day-out. Soft-spoken by nature, he gets visibly excited when it comes to magic.
“I don’t think the appeal of magic ever goes away,” says Blumenthal. “We always want to be amazed, mesmerized and removed from our reality.” He is most proud of a trick of his own creation where a $100 bill is borrowed and accidentally gets destroyed in a paper shredder. The money is found un-shredded in the electric cord, which has exploded into a burst of flames. Fire he says, always impresses audiences.
Blumenthal is only the third owner of the store since it opened in 1925, one year before Houdini’s death and perhaps the height of magic’s popularity. Louis Tannen, who performed magic with the USO during World War II, opened the first location on 25th Street. The shop has moved four times since then, but has stayed in the same general area near Penn Station.
Blumenthal has a lifelong relationship with Tannen’s. He found his way into the magic shop after his aunt gave him a Tannen’s magic kit when he was six years old. He remembers being instantly hooked.
“I performed a magic trick for my first grade class the next week,” he says.
Blumenthal rose through the ranks from frequent customer to informal intern. Then he was hired as an employee at seventeen. When Tony Spina, who bought the store from Tannen, was ready to retire, he approached Blumenthal and asked him about taking over. After three years as a co-owner, Blumenthal has now owned the shop outright for the past seven years.
While he has made some modest changes in an effort to keep up with the times—such as adding a DVD rack in the middle of the store—Blumenthal says it is important for him to keep the same spirit of the store intact. He insists not much has changed since he first visited Tannen’s two decades ago, aside from this location’s smaller size.
“We have customers that come from all over the country and all over the world,” says Blumenthal, who believes the store’s history is what brings old customers back and new ones in. “Our regular is the avid hobbyist—someone who has a day job, but is a knowledgeable and skilled magician. We aren’t street level, so you really have to know about us.”
Tannen’s is indeed well known in the magic community and has been a force behind many magicians’ careers. Years ago, David Copperfield started out as a customer at Tannen’s and still comes in the shop from time to time. J.J. Abrams, creator of Lost and director of Star Trek, is a frequent customer. Every summer since 1974, Tannen’s holds classes for young people ages twelve to twenty-six who want to learn the tricks of the trade; past attendees include David Blaine and the Actor Adrien Brody.
Even though famous magicians, actors and Hollywood producers do not come through the door on most days, Tannen’s is about its tight-knit community of magicians. Those amateur magicians come in to practice at the black-painted round table in the middle of the showroom, testing tricks against each other or on unsuspecting civilians who have wandered in.
“Being able to do something like this and turn someone’s day around from having a crappy day into a good one is really nice,” says Tom Duffy, a professional magician who had come in on a recent afternoon to practice a few card tricks.
Jared Molten has been an employee at Tannen’s for seven years and a performing magician for a decade, since he was a teenager. He stumbled upon Tannen’s when his favorite magic shop in New Jersey closed. Distraught, he looked for a replacement and found Tannen’s online. His first impression of the store was “everything you hope it would be.”
Molten says that when new magicians walk into Tannen’s, he tells them the key is to truly believe in the magic you are performing.
“Most people know that the quarter really doesn’t disappear, and that it’s in your other hand,” he says, palming a coin and making it vanish. “Magic is at least half theatrics. The trick is to follow it with your eyes. By me believing the coin is still up there”–his eyes flicker expectantly toward his closed palm–“the audience believes it.”
At the end of the day, around six pm, customers trickle out and Molten and Blumenthal close up shop. But the real business is only just getting going—after hours is when the curtain is lifted and secrets behind magic are revealed during Tannen’s classes and lectures. On Tuesdays, David Ferst bends quarters and makes currency disappear and multiply at his four-week coin class. Ferst began here as an intern seventeen years ago, when he was nineteen.
“New York has always been a big magic city,” remembers Ferst. “A lot of the legends used to hang out at Tannen’s on weekends and come up with tricks that we still sell today.”
Most of Ferst’s students on a recent Tuesday were middle-aged men, most of whom have come dressed in white button-down shirts and carrying briefcases straight from their day jobs, which range from financial services to dentistry.
“I've liked magic as long as I can remember,” says Stephen Jacobs, a student. “I learned about Tannen's around 1960, when it was located in Times Square.” Jacobs adds that learning the pizzazz behind magic tricks can have benefits beyond this sphere. “Coin magic is especially good for me because I play a lot of poker and have a goofy table image.”
The class begins and Ferst displays his bent quarter rick.
“I think I know how you did that,” says Josh Lax, a twenty-eight student, hesitantly. “Can you do it again, slower?”
Ferst explains that he will reveal the secret only after this reporter has left their company. Once you learn the secret behind a trick, you can’t unlearn it, he explains. Besides, he notes, most people don’t actually want to know a magician’s secrets.
* * *
Joanna Fantozzi is a freelance arts journalist based in New York. Her work has been featured in The Daily News, The West Side Spirit and Our Town.
Chelsea Mose is an Australian-born artist and photographer with a passion for neurology, strange behavior and unforeseen circumstances.