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Icon May Go Up in a Puff of Smoke
Revitalization Could Push Aside Md. Magic Shop

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006; B01

Check this one out, Barry Taylor is saying as he pulls a gold-colored coin from his pocket. He holds it aloft for the customers of his Wheaton magic store to inspect, then tucks it into his right fist.

He waves his left hand over the fist, opens it and -- poof -- the coin is gone. Nothing but palm and wiggling, taunting fingers. Another flash of the hands and the coin is back, conjured, it seems, from thin air.

How did you do that?

Magic, he says, grinning to the crowd.

For more than 30 years, Taylor, 53, has been performing all sorts of tricks at his store, Barry's Magic Shop on Georgia Avenue. In the cramped and dowdy boutique, where the novelties, gags and costumes are piled from floor to ceiling, he makes dollar bills float, shoots fireballs from his palm and always knows what card you're holding.

But Taylor cannot figure out how to make his problems disappear.

Montgomery County has used eminent domain and spent nearly $1 million to acquire the building that houses Barry's Magic Shop from Taylor's former landlord. The county plans to tear it down and build a walkway as part of an effort to revitalize Wheaton's downtown.

If that happens and he is forced to relocate, Taylor could be out of business because he can't afford higher rent, he said. Taylor pays about $2,500 a month to rent the two-story building. He has looked at two other storefronts in the area, but the landlords wanted to charge more than four times his present rent, he said.

Still, Taylor is hoping that his shop might be able to remain where it has been for decades. An e-mail campaign has sprung up, and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and County Council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) have gotten involved.

Silverman called Barry's shop an "icon in the community" and said the council committee that approved the walkway project did not realize it would be displacing the magic shop. The council will look at the situation, he said, and try to help the parties come to a resolution.

"We're in the middle right now of trying to pass a zoning change to allow revitalization of downtown Wheaton while preserving small businesses," Silverman said. "And here the other arm of the government is looking at evicting Barry's from its longtime home."

Last week, the council approved the zoning change, which would allow for more dense development and taller buildings in the downtown.

Since 1974, Barry's has been one of the few magic stores in the region and a pranksters' paradise. Pamphlets titled "The Very Modern Mind Reader" fill the racks, rubber chickens hang from the ceiling and tarot cards are piled on the counter. There are hand buzzers, spring-loaded snakes in cans, whoopee cushions. A standing store rule is that a clown making an emergency balloon stop on the way to a gig can cut the line. Even the store's mascot, a border collie named Frankie the Wonder Dog, performs by catching balls that customers kick to him.

For seasoned magicians, the store is something of a locker room, a place to hang out and swap stories and tricks. For Taylor and his wife, Susan Kang, who performs with him, it's a stage on which to dazzle customers with dollar bills that stretch a few feet long and books that burst into flames when opened. It's about eliciting smiles, but it's also about something deeper: extending the boundaries of reality.

Magic is not in making the coin disappear, Taylor knows. It's doing it in a way that makes people think, if just for a moment, that maybe the coin really has vanished. "You can take people to a different world where you're doing things they know are not possible, but yet they stop and wonder," he said.

Taylor started performing as a child, learning many of his tricks by hanging out in Al's Magic Shop in the District. He performed while attending Northwood High School in Silver Spring, where he met Kang, and then while attending the University of Maryland.

After college, he decided he wanted to make a living by selling tricks, and Kang, who was working as a nurse, said she'd help him open Barry's Magic Shop. Since then, Taylor has become one of the region's best-known magicians, performing at parties and corporate functions. He once performed at a dinner attended by Sophia Loren, he said.

"The whole nature of the business is you're buying secrets," said Al Cohen, whose store closed two years ago. Cohen sometimes hangs out at Barry's with other magicians.

"Sure, if Barry's closes, everyone will keep on living," said George Woo, a magician who is one of Taylor's regulars. "What will be gone is the tradition of magicians learning from other magicians."

Although Montgomery officials said the last thing they want is to put Taylor out of business, they emphasized that the walkway is needed to improve movement between the shops on Georgia Avenue and the parking lot behind them.

"There's a real problem of accessibility of the Georgia Avenue shops to parking," said Joseph Davis, the director of the Wheaton redevelopment program. "In effect, you have to walk all the way around the block. So this will help address that issue. It makes the businesses much more successful."

Taylor has submitted a plan to open up the alley that runs along the side of his shop, saying that could serve as the walkway and allow him to keep his store. County officials have said they'll consider it, but Taylor has been told he needs to prepare to vacate the building by the end of the year.

"Right now we're looking to see if there is an alternative to demolishing the building," Davis said.

Meanwhile, Taylor waits. He sells his tricks and wows customers, who beg him to divulge his secrets.

The other day, Bob David of Rockville, who likes to perform for his grandchildren and other relatives, came in looking for a trick he could use on a family trip.

Here's just the one, Taylor says, pulling out a deck of cards that have a different name written on the back of each: The queen of clubs is "Alec," and the nine of diamonds is "Bud." Taylor asks David to think of a card and keep it to himself. Then Taylor says he'll tell David the name his card corresponds with.

"Phil," Taylor announces after a moment. "That's the name of your card."

He rifles through the deck, pulls out the card named Phil and, sure enough, it's the card David was thinking of: the seven of clubs.

Impressed, David plunks down his money, which entitles him to a trip behind the counter, where the other customers can't overhear Taylor explaining the secret, which won't be divulged here either. Magic deconstructed isn't magic. It's a trick -- a clever ruse that when performed correctly creates a stunning illusion.

"It's all in the presentation," a deflated Taylor tells David.

Explaining the mechanics isn't any fun.

"It ruins the wonder," he says.

And the wonder is everything.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company