How Europe’s Largest Magic Store Makes a Business Out of Slight of Hand
Magicians and mind readers have mystified their audiences for centuries. They have been worshipped, burned alive, brought back to save lives and fight in fierce battles. From druids to witches, ghosts and genies, explanations for their mastery have always been shrouded in mystery. And one question has driven people mad ever since the first rabbit was pulled out of a hat: How do they do it?
A couple of weeks ago, strolling down Marxergasse in Vienna’s 3rd District, I was startled to see a heavy glass plate I had never noticed before, on which the words Vienna Magic were written in ornate letters. Inside, the room was curtained in black velvet as a skeleton sat playing cards by the entrance. I felt a nearly irresistible urge to go in, but my Harry Potter-infected mind stopped me. Would I know the password the skeleton was about to demand? I took a deep breath and held still; the demon guard remained motionless.
Instead, a loud "dingdong" from the invisible door alarm announced my presence. I froze, bracing myself for whatever strange clerk might surface from the dark. Nothing. I relaxed and looked around.
The room was stacked with products, fake noses and false teeth, instruction videos and juggling balls. Some undecipherable boxes, hats and magic wands. This was the tourist buffer, the selling area for superficial window shoppers who would bounce back onto the street with a couple of Euros less in their pockets.
The real goods lay elsewhere. A small sign blocking the narrow space that led to the back read: "For professionals only!" I felt my heart beat faster. I could see the large boxes covered in black cloth, neatly organised shelves sealed behind glass, unlike the magicians flea market section at the front.
This was where the answers lay. But how to reach them? Perhaps just pass the sign and pretend to be looking for the bathroom…
"Can I help you with anything, Sir?" A girl with blue hair smiled shyly.
"No thank you, I’m just looking around."
Suddenly there is commotion; a chubby guy enters, obviously familiar with the place and people.
"You got any more of those magic boxes?" he asked insistently.
"The ones you bought last time?"
"Yeah. But don’t sell me those crappy beginner sets again! You can give those to the little kids you got running around here. And you got any more books of spells?" The blue haired clerk points at a pile of books right in front of me.
"Just got these in yesterday." The grumpy customer dismissed them with a wave, grabbed his purchase and vanished.
Somehow, I expected shopping here to be different. Where was the magic? However, the little encounter had boosted my self-confidence. No password after all!
I lifted my disguise to ask for an interview with the owner, or "chief magician," Oliver Ciontea. What was he going to be? Whom or what had he seen on his journeys? Was he capable of being surprised? Or would he have the inner piece I’ve seen with Buddhist monks? Or like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings?
Getting the interview was no problem, and we scheduled an appointment via phone. Doing a little research, I learned that Oliver Ciontea and his wife Olga run Europe’s biggest Magic Store and School, and have been for the past five years. Olga is in charge of management and Oliver is the magician; together they subcontract about 200 other artists who can be booked over the shop’s website. Together they do all sorts of shows, from kids birthday parties to big events.
A couple of days later and back at the store, my camera ready just in case, I wait. With a half hour delay, Ciontea rushes into the store. He is a tall man in his forties, with a shock of wavy blonde hair, who looks very stressed out.
"Damn, I just got back from three months of touring. And now all I do is struggle to catch up," he grumbles.
And that’s when it happens. He actually pulls the velvet rope aside and motions me to follow him behind the counter. It’s that easy? We don’t stop there, at the border of the "professional zone," but head up the stairs to his office. It’s like going to Washington D.C. to catch a glimpse of the White House and ending up poking around in the Oval Office. Okay, maybe I’m a little gaga, but I can’t help feeling excited.
Finally, a soupcon of magic. The second floor is stuffed with rows and rows of coat hangers bearing hundreds of costumes packed between hats, wands, tiny suitcases and huge ones. The thick black carpet not only covers the floor but all four walls; a smell of makeup and old linen lies in the air. The ceiling is so low that grown men have trouble standing upright.
Street and store noises reach this cocoon sounding muffled and somewhat distant. Small lights emerge from the ceiling like tiny stars, reflecting off of varnished belts and casting huge shadows over vast amounts of hats. I set up the camera; the light is miserable and the sound is much too low. Strangely enough, it feels exactly right.
Ciontea left home at 16 to join a circus, and has been in the entertainment business ever since. Back when Austrian National Television ORF produced its own children’s programme, he was part of it. He arrived at magic by chance and, four years ago when the previous proprietor of the store passed away, he took over. Sounded like just another job.
It was Harry Potter that brought the new craze to life.
"Suddenly, everybody wanted to be a magician," Ciontea said, "and we were selling the tools to fulfil these wishes." Sooner or later people would come back to the store, wondering why their tricks weren’t as convincing as the pros’.
"They wanted to know why it didn’t look the same when they had "Gertrude" floating around in a local pub as when David Copperfield did it on a multimillion dollar stage," he said. "It was mostly middle-aged men compensating for their deficiencies by jumping out of a box or pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Some of them have invested fortunes – with no success."
The clientele of a magic store is a rough cut across society: kids and teenagers, the aforementioned middle-aged men, professionals in need of the tools of their trade, coloured handkerchiefs and card decks.
With its reputation as Europe’s largest magic store, Vienna Magic attracts magicians from abroad. Even David Copperfield has paid a visit more than once. However Vienna as a site for the store has dimmed somewhat. Twenty years ago, when the Prater was a potpourri for artists and cabarets, black arts and performance art businesses thrived. Although Cabaret still thrives in Vienna, the magic business has shifted to a more "gastrotainment" approach. It’s a world of dinner theatre. Nowadays people like to be fed an appetiser, a main dish and a desert while being entertained on a highly professional level. The Viennese seem to have lost interest in this kind of diversion for its own sake. Cointeau is clearly frustrated. However, business talk alone is not enough for me.
What about the mystery? I want to extract from him a glimpse of a distant and different world. What is his most memorable moment, his best or worst show? And why? Unfortunately, he can’t think of anything; after 5000 – 6000 shows it’s too hard to pick.
I begin to understand why he frowns at the term magician; he prefers illusionist. He’s an actor, an entertainer who profits from the fascination of the inexplicable and from the rumours and stories encircling this ancient craft.
I end the interview with mixed feelings. On the one hand the secrecy in the air is thick enough to cut with a knife; on the other, this is a person working hard to pay the rent – just like anyone else. Do we see a magician as having such worldly troubles?
It feels a bit like when I learned there was no Santa Claus. It was the Dec. 23, 1991, and we were at my grandmother’s house. I remember asking my dad if Santa would bring me the presents I had wished for. Suddenly, my grandmother interrupted:
"What? The child still believes in Santa?"
It was harsh. But in a way, it was an important lesson. I felt a little less dumb. I couldn’t even cry. I guess it was just another experience on the way to adulthood.
So 16 years later, walking up Marxergasse and away from Vienna Magic, it felt as if I should have known. Of course there is no real magic. What was I thinking?
But as with Christmas, I realise I am still looking forward to the next circus, to the lights, the orchestra, the tigers, the acrobats… and of course, the illusionists, who will always be able to charm me, performing far, far away from the ordinariness of every day.
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