Where books are magic

Don’t expect to just walk in off the street and unlock the secrets of these specialized and ancient texts

William Kalush in the rare book room.

New York’s famous edifices, its great apartment towers and monuments to commerce are often considered to be the most evocative buildings in the city. But to the subtle observer of our concrete ecosystem, the hodgepodge rows of compact mid-rise buildings that fill Midtown Manhattan can be far more potent. It seems impossible that there could be so many, that they could be filled so completely, that they could become so invisible in their ubiquity. Who can resist imagining the strange lives and secret worlds inside?

But if you investigate one such nameless building on 30th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, you will find an especially intriguing name on the building directory: Conjuring Arts. It sounds like a cross between a graphic design studio and a witch’s coven, yet what’s inside is even less expected.

“We don’t accept walk-ins or give tours because it is all we would ever do,” William Kalush, the founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Center and author of “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero,” tells LLNYC. “We accept people involved in research projects.”

Kalush, a magician known for working closely with David Blaine, has almost single-handedly turned his personal collection of performance magic books into a vast research library and one of the most remarkable and mysterious niche collections in the world.

“We have a lot of resources that exist nowhere else and curatorial expertise that you couldn’t get at a normal library,” says Kalush, who opened the library to the public in earnest in 2003. Today, with an appointment and a request for a specific resource that cannot be found in most bookstores or libraries, Conjuring Arts opens its door to scriptwriters, working magicians looking to increase their repertoire, historians and graduate students.

Many of the library’s 12,000 or so volumes are obscure, privately published books by magicians for the exclusive use of other magicians.

“In the old days, you’d really have to be an insider to even know that Magic Inc. or Lee Jacobs or Micky Hades were publishing certain things,” Kalush says.

But it’s not only the books at Conjuring Arts that are magic — the space itself will also cast a spell on you.

Many of the Conjuring Arts Research Center’s
12,000 volumes are obscure books privately
published by magicians for the exclusive
use of other magicians.

At the elevator landing, you are greeted with a large early 20th-century poster of a mystic standing among a tower of human skulls. The library is dark, narrow and labyrinthine. From the reception desk and main room, visitors meander through a tunnel of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Inside a glass case are Houdini’s handcuffs (some, including Houdini, believed they were worn by Charles Guiteau, President James Garfield’s assassin, when Guiteau was hanged). There’s also a baseball impossibly fitted inside a small bottle and a medal from the 1580s stamped with the face of the magician and publisher Hieronymus Scotus.

Expressionist posters advertising magic acts from the 1910s and 1920s lean haphazardly against walls. A truly massive poster of Houdini that once belonged to the magician himself fills the entire wall next to the toilet in the bathroom.

But the most interesting secrets the library keeps are hidden behind an unmarked door that’s kept locked at all times: the rare book room.

A long study table surrounded by high-backed Gothic-style chairs fills the center of the small rectangular room. Strewn across the table are unique examples of magical incunabula and many volumes in a dozen odd languages written before the 18th century.

“When I say there is not another example [of these texts], that means the British Library doesn’t have it. The Vatican doesn’t have it. The Library of Congress doesn’t have it. There are no other copies,” Kalush says as he opens a protective binder to reveal a single-leaf pamphlet from 1530s Venice describing how to make a ring dance in a glass and various other magic tricks. Another document shows what might be the earliest printed example of card magic. “Many of these tricks would still be familiar to magicians today,” he adds.

Twice a year, the library publishes Gibecière, a journal that includes English translations of Kalush’s recherché collection for public consumption — often it is the first time the text will have ever been translated into English.

“We are constantly trying to turn this into usable information,” he says. “We are the only ones that have these things, so people don’t even know they exist. We don’t keep it a secret, but people don’t know we have it.”

The library also works full time digitizing the original letters and diaries of magicians, which again, of course, exist nowhere else. It publishes the digitized archives on its proprietary search engine, Ask Alexander, like “a Google Books [web search] of magic material,” Kalush says.

Kalush says his mission is to make the whole art of magic a little bit better for everyone. And part of that is not revealing too much to the public and not revealing to the layman how tricks are performed.

“We want better magicians. We want better research. We want the new guys to have better tools….But magic is about secrets, so we keep it to ourselves,” he concludes.