“I feel like Tannen’s is the Russ & Daughters of magic,” says Noah Levine, host of the store’s weekly Magic After Hours show. “It’s like stepping back in time.”
Tannen’s is New York City’s oldest magic shop, founded in 1925. Come in to buy a new trick, chat with like-minded fanatics or just be dazzled by a magic show.
Entering the store from the sixth floor of a nondescript office building with cramped metallic elevators, white walls and fluorescent lighting feels—as its employees note—like walking into a Jorge Luis Borges story. The crowded space holds cards, a corner library of instructional magic books, a straitjacket, rows of Tannen’s famous Mystery Boxes (which feature an assortment of magical items), a secret back room literally marked “Secret Back Room” and an enormous prop elephant from the 2012 play Elephant Room.
During our visit, Magick Balay—one of the resident magicians at Tannen’s— demonstrates close-up tricks while customers guess at their secrets; at the store’s lone table, a businessman with graying hair and a flannel-clad 14-year-old boy teach each other card tricks. The social atmosphere is even more welcoming at Levine’s Thursday night magic show, at which guests sip champagne while watching the host perform some illusions.
“This is where all the big names start,” Balay says after making a card appear, folded up, in a box that’s been in plain sight. “David Copperfield bought a dancing cane here when he was 16. David Blaine used to come here before he was David Blaine.” Even Muhammad Ali was a regular. If asked, Balay will show visitors the boxer’s favorite purchase: a type of vanishing device (best to see it for yourself).
Levine traces the shop’s history to the days before it had a fixed address. “When Lou Tannen started,” he says, “he had stands all over the city—Coney Island, Flatbush Avenue, Times Square. The first official storefront was in the Wurlitzer Building, at 120 West 42nd Street, in the early 1940s.”
While magic itself has changed since then, with YouTube largely supplanting books and word of mouth as ways to pass along secrets, the shop remains a hub for magic lovers. The store’s inventory ranges from $3 coin gimmicks to a $600 deck of cards used to read minds. Tannen’s still sells its own original illusions, like the “Really Haunted” floating deck and a mind-reading trick called “Card Leap.”
“Houdini had a shop right on the other side of this wall,” Balay says, pointing past the elephant. Levine confirms: Martinka & Company (later Flosso-Hornman Magic), which Houdini briefly owned around 1920, had its last incarnation in suite 607 of this building; in 2004, Tannen’s moved to its current home in suite 608 without even realizing its famous neighbors.
“You can’t just stumble onto this place,” says Balay. “You have to do your homework. See this guy coming in? He probably knows what he wants already. I don’t know him, but he likes magic. Instant friends.”
Cards, each signed by a visitor, dot the ceiling of Tannen’s. It’s part of a trick: pull a card from a deck, sign it, and put it back. The magician pulls a rubber band around the cards, tosses the deck high, and your card sticks. Like Tannen’s, you become part of history.