How the Magic Business Migrated from Brick and Mortar to Online
Magic stores have gone through a stunning transformation in the last twenty years. When I was a kid, ALL the magic you purchased with either in person at a Brick and Mortar magic shop (BAM), or through a catalogue.
Many will tell you that online magic shops put BAM shops out of business. I will tell you a different story, and one that I think is far more accurate. Moreover, I’ll tell you why I think the current magic marketplace is producing better magic, better magicians, and why right now is the best EVER time to be a magician. The truth is rarely cut and dry, and there are a host of contributing factors to the change in the marketplace. So let’s jump in.
The Problem with Brick and Mortar Magic Shops
BAM shops are great. Great! They are remembered fondly both because they’re gone and because great magic shops were transformative for many magicians. When I think of the best shops, I think of the best shop owners: Ken Brooke, Denny Haney, Al Cohen, Lou Tannen, even Al Diamond. These men were characters--they had attitude, and they cared about magic and how their customers progressed.
We love hearing stories about magician-kids who were scolded for trying to be the latest fad magic trick. “No, I won’t sell you that kid. Buy this book and don’t come back until you can do everything in it.” These are lovely stories.
But I’ve had the fortune to travel the world and visit as many magic shops around the world as there were left at the time of my tours. I lectured in many of them. And I saw some great shops. But what I saw more of is TERRIBLE shops, run poorly, with bad inventory and marked up pricing. The stores were under-stocked and under-staffed, and in poor condition. They weren’t magnets for skillful magicians. They were costume shops with dusty magic props in one corner.
The internet is often blamed for killing magic shops, but by the 90s, the magic shops were doing a pretty good job killing off themselves.
When I was a kid, I used to receive glossy catalogues from all the major players. The biggest and best catalogues came from Steven’s Magic Emporium. They did a nice job with beautiful black and white photos depicting the tricks in use. They were enticing photos and great descriptions. MagicSmith then put out the cleverest catalogues, with ad copy written by the inimitable Greg Wilson. L and L, for a period of time, produced full-color glossy catalogues that also had some nice feature articles in them.
The catalogue, too, is a relic from a bygone era. But ask yourself this: are we really missing anything without catalogues?
Today, consumers get BETTER photos, ad copy unrestricted by the little paragraph of space in a catalogue, and something far, far more valuable: a video trailer showing how the trick is supposed to look. Without question, the shift to online has been good for the consumer in this respect.
The “Versus” Argument
There are various ways people contrast BAM shops with online shops. And one of the biggest is this: in-person interaction vs. a screen.
And for a period of time that BAM shops coexisted with online shops, this was a valid concern.
A lively shop could have lectures, magic club meetings, and private instruction. A lively shop would allow you to ask questions to someone about a trick, or learn it in person.
Slowly, slowly, the online option has evolved to eclipse even this argument. Note that I said that a “lively” shop would offer these things. That’s true. But most shops aren’t lively. Most shops are empty, and not filled with the sort of magicians worth studying and learning from.
I’ll use us, Vanishing Inc., as an example. If you ever have a question about a trick, you ask via email or our live chat feature. No matter what time zone you’re in, you’ll get a response to your question, usually within an hour - often within minutes.
We offer online tutorials, both live and through our downloads. And our Masterclass: Live is taught by inarguably the top thinkers and performers in our industry. You’re learning from the BEST.
Increasingly, we’re finding ways to foster a community THROUGH our site. It will never replace a human interaction, but for that...we offer our magic conventions.
The E-Commerce Revolution
Nobody saw the e-commerce revolution coming. Well, okay, Jeff Bezos did. But most of us didn’t understand the immense power of online retail, and the many ways it would evolve. For most of us, we saw a website as a slow-loading page with clipart and expensive shipping options.
Fast-forward ten years. This is the way nearly ALL magic is purchased. You can interact with creators live and in chat rooms. You can return magic for free. You can see fully uncut performance clips. You can updates for free with purchases.
You can take lessons without leaving your home, and watch some of the greatest magicians alive talk about their process and their material.
I believe this revolution is still happening, and there are even more capabilities and needs we’ll be able to satisfy through the online portal.
Here are some tips to take full advantage of the online experience at Vanishing Inc.
- Read reviews. You’re welcome to read reviews off-site, but one of our core principles is honesty: we ENCOURAGE users to leave reviews--good or bad--for other shoppers. You can read these reviews for all of our most popular products.
- Shop without fear. We have the best return policy in all of magic, so if you don’t like something you buy, just send it back. No questions asked. We want you to be a customer for life, so don’t worry about it if something isn’t what you expected.
- Learn it right now. You know the feeling...you want to learn magic tricks RIGHT NOW. Not in a week, when your item arrives. You can! Take advantage of our enormous download library. We have, literally, thousands of tricks and segments all available the moment you purchase them. They’re always saved in your account and you can download them whenever you like.
- Get our Exclusives. We carry a TON of magic, and it’s all curated so there isn’t junk. BUT, we also carry exclusive items, listed under “Exclusives” that you can ONLY find on our site. This is stuff you can’t get anywhere else.
The Online Revolution is Making Magicians Better
This is something I believe completely, and I’m sure many magicians would disagree with me: the internet is helping to produce better magicians.
Of course, the internet is neither “good” nor “bad” for magic. There are endless elements, both good and bad, that have arisen as a result of the shift to watching and buying magic tricks online.
But if you list it all out and look at it objectively, there are just so many great things happening because of this new form of communication.
Magic used to be a regional craft; it looked different depending on where you were from. Magic in India looked different than magic in Argentina. People handled cards a little differently in Japan as compared with Canada. Sadly, much of this “magic cultural identity” has disappeared. Rather than learning from local teachers or groups, magicians EVERYWHERE are learning from the same online sources.
That’s the bad news. But the good news is that around the world, people are learning from world-class resources. Now, if David Williamson puts out a download, EVERYONE from around the world can access it equally.
Sure, when beginners enter our fold, they tend to find the wrong resources. But hasn’t that always been the case? It used to be a shitty beginner book without illustrations and poorly described magic. Now, it’s a bad video tutorial on YouTube. But anyone who spends time studying magic will find their way to better teachers and better resources. As magic comes to the fore of their life, they’ll spend more money and time perfecting their craft. And I believe they will find better resources. The internet has made access to those resources easier than ever before.
In particular, downloads have changed the game and evened the playing field. For the most part, downloads are affordable, and because there’s no packages or shipping, they can be transmitted instantly to anywhere in the world.
In earlier years, we offered a new download every couple months, and our entire catalogue was about 40 downloads large. Now...we have, literally, more than a thousand different, unique downloads on topics ranging from children’s magic to sleight-of-hand to mentalism to magic theory.
Delivering and Exceeding Expectations
One thing that drives us as we continue on our quest to be a better magic shop every day, is expanding our scope and exceeding expectations. The story of how we started this magic shop continues.
When I say, “expanding our scope,” what I mean is that we are continually pushing ourselves into new territories. For example, before the pandemic we never offered any kind of live magic tutorial. But through ShareMagic: Live and then our Masterclass: Live, we now offer weekly live tuition for magic.
We didn’t set out to do actual live events, but we now offer two conventions AND a Retreat each year. We’re also expanding our live events (when the pandemic subsides).
We used to innovate with magic books, DVDs, and tricks. But increasingly we’re getting into playing card production and apparel for magicians.
And then, of course, we’re always trying to exceed expectations and be better at what we do. Very, very few magic shops invest in customer service. We employ several people, each in different time zones, to try to serve our customers best at all times and in all locations. We’ve worked hard to have the fastest turnaround time on orders of anyone in the magic business. And while packaging on a magic trick “shouldn’t matter” since you don’t perform with the package, we’ve learned it DOES matter to our customers, and so we’ve upped our game and offer state-of-the art packaging for our newer products.
One of the nice byproducts of what we’ve achieved at Vanishing Inc is our capacity to give back. As our business establishes itself in the industry, we’re very aware of the role and responsibility we must assume for the betterment of magic.
Through our charitable arm, we donate props and scholarships to magicians to attend conventions and put shows together. We also helped build and restore areas in the headquarters of the College of Magic, our preferred charity focus.
And as time goes on, we’re doing even more. I can’t speak here about specifics, but we’ve commissioned two books that we feel are important to changing perceptions about the world of magic. They’re unlikely to be profitable books, but they are books we feel “need” to be written, and so we’ve commissioned them.