Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Abracadabra Magazine, the last incantation.


Davenports, the owners of Abracadabra magazine.

Abracadabra, 2nd February 1946 to 28th March 2009.

This week sees the publication of the last ever issue of the longest running British national magic magazine, independent of any magic club or magic society, Abracadabra; it was hailed as the only magical weekly in the world, its contributors were diverse in character ranging from Ali Bongo to Jerry Sadowitz, and its readers fondly nicknamed it Abra. After 63 years and 3,296 issues the weekly magazine came to an abrupt end with little warning to its loyal readers. In the previous week’s issue it was announced that the magazine was being bought by entrepreneur Stephen Martin. Then there was gossip on internet discussion boards that the business deal collapsed on the evening of Sunday 22nd March, one day after the announcement of a buy-out. They were all asking would Abra cease publication and in a last minute change to the magazine’s editorial, this week’s issue contained the sad announcement that it would indeed be the last one. Word quickly spread on discussion boards on the internet; the reaction is one of disappointment and has been described by one magician as “a tragic loss to the magical community.”

The magazine was the creation of Charles Goodliffe Neale and the first issue went on sale on February 2nd, 1946. He successfully maintained the weekly magazine until his death in 1980, after which the famous magic dealers of London, Davenports, bought the business from the Goodliffe family. Established in 1898, Davenports is a family business that has had four generations of magicians and dealers of magic apparatus and books. Their shop once had a prestigious location opposite the British Museum. It is now located in the Charing Cross Underground Arcade.

Magic is about secrets and it is unfortunate that one secret that Daveneports kept in the past number of years was that Abra was in trouble. When magician and Magic Circle member Walt Lees was made editor, he was given a year and then a second year to change the fortunes of the magazine. In this week’s final issue Walt wrote in his editorial that the publishers had “placed their trust in me and I did my best. Sadly my best wasn’t good enough.” Noble as it is for Walt Lees to take some responsibility for the magazine’s demise, the truth is that no blame should be put his way. An editor of magic magazines with nearly thirty years experience, he ensured that Abra maintained a high standard of style and content whilst meeting the needs of the readers, who often let him know what that was and being a good editor he listened.

Richard Kaufman, magician and publisher of the American magic magazine The Genii, has expressed the opinion that the internet contributed to Abra’s reduction in sales, citing Duncan Trillo’s website MagicWeek as a competitor for weekly news of magic in Britain. Others have expressed the opinion that Abra is another periodical which has become victim to the recession.

So what happened? Was it the recession? Was it the internet? Well, personally, I think not; for once, it was not entirely those bugbears. The Goodliffe website, property of Davenports, consisted of three pages, none of which was particularly informative about Abra. It was also very out of date; it still named Donald Bevan as editor, even though he had handed over the reins of Abra to Walt Lees some time before. The only weblink on the site for inquiries about Abra was to the Davenports website. If that link was followed it led to Davenports main page, where a less than noticeable link (now removed) could be found regarding subscriptions to Abra.

Neither website followed the standard advertising and sales methods used by other publishers of magic magazines such as The Genii, Magic Magazine or Magicseen. There was no description of the magazine, no details of the latest issue and its contents, no sample articles or photos, nothing that would entice new readers to subscribe. A free copy of Abra could be sent on request for perusal but such a sales technique is never cost effective and very behind the times in comparison with the online methods used by the above named rivals of Abra. Could it be that Davenports were relying on Abra’s reputation to bring sales? If so, it is a sales approach that has brought many a good product to an end. Every week brings a new generation of readers for periodicals and they tend to make their choices of what to buy based on what is advertised and advertised well.

Last year I met mentalist Chris Cox at one of his shows and said I was submitting a review to Abra, which was later published; subsequently, in an exchange of emails with me, he asked how to get a copy. It speaks volumes in regard to Davenports' advertising of Abra that a successful performer from a new generation of magicians, who has won awards, performed on radio and television, who has undoubtedly researched magic in building an act, has heard of the name but does not know the details of a magic magazine in its sixty second year of publication or where to buy a copy.

And the true shame of it all is that Abra was probably the best magic magazine in existence. It contained a minimum of advertising and a maximum of news. On news subjects that internet sites would only give a paragraph, Abra gave pages, sometimes a whole issue. While magic societies have occasional newsletters available only to its members, Abra connected all the magic societies in regards to weekly news and events. There was also up to date, sound advice from experienced performers on the small but nevertheless very relevant topics overlooked by other magazines. If one thing has to be chosen as iconic of Abra it was the debates that were thrashed out in articles and letters that appeared in its pages. Strong opinions, controversy and arguments on all aspects of magic had always been an ingredient of Abra.

Now it is all gone. The secrecy surrounding Abra’s financial health stole any opportunity from its readers of finding a way to save it. I am sure that if a small number of like-minded subscribers banded together and pooled their resources early enough, Abracadabra could have been saved. It was the one time in the history of magic that keeping secrets was a bad idea.

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