The New England Magic Collectors Association’s (NEMCA) bi-annual convention, The Yankee Gathering, is one of the last magic collectors’ meetups still around and it’s in a tight spot. Like Houdini, the community of magic collectors is in proverbial box filling up with water, but don't be too alarmed; every good escape artist knows how to survive tough situations.
The Yankee Gathering, which has been held every other year since its inception in 1986, is an institution within the magic collecting community. Speaking to its program coordinator, Jim Zoldak, over Skype, he estimates that while it used to frequently meet its modern capacity of 200 people far in advance of the show, but in recent years it hasn’t always sold out.
One of the reasons magic collecting, as a hobby and community, is dying is because magic collectors themselves are dying. Zoldak reckons roughly a third of NEMCA’s original membership have gone on to what he calls “their magic collection in the sky.”
It’s a worrying thought for the gray-haired enthusiast, and it’s not a far-off fear. As unsettling as it is to imagine a future where nobody reveres the historical artifacts that launched this evocative form of showmanship, the most melancholy moments have already hit their apex, at least for Zoldak, as his close friend of over three decades and the primary founder of the Yankee Gathering, Ray Goulet, tragically passed away this last October at the valiant age of 87.
“I met Ray Goulet at his magic shop, and he opened my eyes to what magic collecting was all about,” Zoldak reminisces on how he made the acquaintance of his late friend back in the early 1980s in Watertown, Massachusetts. “I saw how much there was to possess and how much depth there was to magic collecting. The bug hit me and it hasn’t stopped. I’ve been collecting for 35 years.”
Hearing Zoldak describe his dear companion and mentor, it’s clear that Goulet’s natural charisma was one of the main draws of the convention. “His personality was such that he really drove it and everybody else just kind of helped him,” Zoldak laments. “It was his idea, his baby, and he always wanted to do everything first class. Both he and his wife Ann were so friendly and generous and outgoing, that it felt almost like a family reunion when you went to the gathering. They made it an intimate, and friendly, and familial environment for everybody. People came back just for that reason. Even if they didn’t collect magic, they liked being in that atmosphere.”
“One of the things that really sold people on the convention was that it felt like Ray was welcoming you into his house. He was there, he knew people by their name, he talked to everybody. Everybody knew Ray,” Zoldak says. “It was Ray’s convention in many respects. A lot of people played a key part in it, but he was the figurehead that everybody identified with.”
Hearing Zoldak talk about it, it’s easy to see why. The enthusiast describes early magic collectors’ conventions as a lot of “horse-trading”, i.e. bartering. This focus on acquisition was not the environment Goulet wanted to replicate. The Yankee Gathering, in its current form, incorporates lectures, performances, and exhibits as well as opportunities for collectors to acquire new additions to their collections.
While Goulet was a magic collector - so much so that he almost single-handedly founded a three-decade-and-counting convention - he had a very strong philosophy about how to amass a collection: you build it a piece at a time. “I swear at 87 he could still tell you where he bought each item, who it belonged to, how much he paid for it, and the history of that piece,” Zoldak states. In other words, he was staunchly opposed to simply buying someone else’s collection outright.
There was one time he went against this rule, however. In the late 80s, shortly after Zoldak and Goulet became friends, the younger man got a hot tip on an aging magic collector looking to unload his entire collection, which he kept in his barn in Georgia. Zoldak made the trip, took pictures of this guy’s collection, and wanted to buy it. The only problem was he didn’t have the capital to acquire it.
“I couldn’t afford it myself, so I went around and asked a couple of other people. And I talked to Ray, and he said that he doesn’t really buy collections, but based on what he saw he would go in on it with me. So we did,” Zoldak recalls.
“He went outside of his philosophy of never buying a collection to buying a collection with me. He trusted me, that I was going to follow through on this, and then having the adventure of sorting, packing, transporting and selling this stuff to other collectors was a pretty strong memory of Ray for me,” Zoldak recalls. “We didn’t really make money on it. We broke even at the end, or maybe made a couple hundred bucks out of like a $12,000 investment, but it was just kind of the adventure, the experience that made it worthwhile.”
But now Goulet is gone, and the buck has fallen to Zoldak and company at NEMCA to carry on Ray’s legacy. Those are big shoes to fill, but Zoldak seems cautiously optimistic about fulfilling his late friend’s vision. “We’re working really hard trying to put together a good program, but it’s difficult because we’re handicapped without Ray Goulet being available as a resource - and he was a valuable, valuable resource. He knew everybody and everybody knew him; it just made life so much easier,” he says. “It’s not that we’re at a loss to make it happen - we’re going to make it happen - but we want to keep up the standards that Ray had set, and that’s the challenge.”
It sounds like a lot of Goulet did rub off on his protege, who giddily spins his laptop around to show me the highlights of his collection via webcam. When asked about his most prized possession, Zoldak shows me a copy of a book called The Petit Sorcerer or The Conjurer Unmasked, which was published in 1803 and is one of only four known copies in existence. Zoldak knows another collector with over 10,000 magic books - roughly quadruple the size of Zoldak’s library - and he doesn't have a copy of it. “For someone who has that extensive a library and not have a copy kind of makes it special to me,” Zoldak laughs.
His other collectible highlight is a signed copy of Houdini's A Magician Among the Spirits. Yet Houdini is not the magician Zoldak is most intrigued by. Instead, that would be a man by the name of Henry "Box" Brown, who Zoldak has spent the last few years tirelessly researching.
It’s not that Brown was a great magician, though he may have been - it’s hard to gauge the craft of a man who died a few years shy of the 20th century - but rather he has an interesting story complete with death-defying feats of derring-do and a healthy dose of mystery.
Brown was born a slave in 1816 Virginia and managed to escape from slavery by shipping himself in a box to Philadelphia. According to Zoldak, “he wasn’t the first slave to try this, but he was the first slave to have survived the trip.” From there he went on to migrate to England where he became a civil rights speaker. That’s what he’s most known for. What’s less known about Brown is that he also performed as a magician.
“After the Civil War and the anti-slavery movement had died down a little he became a magician and was doing a magic act that involved performing magic and escapes,” Zoldak states.
“The slavery aspect of his life is pretty well documented, but nobody has documented his years as a showman,” he adds. Zoldak is still trying to sort out where Brown learned his trade as a magician. He has some hunches, from seeing which performers were in the same towns as Brown at the same time, but there’s still a lot that’s unknown about this peculiar career transition. The only piece of paraphernalia Zoldak could find related to Brown’s trade as a magician is a ticket stub that sold to somebody else at an auction for over $1,000.
Another interesting thing about Brown is that he spoke out against fraudulent spirit mediums, something Houdini became known for decades later, as psychics saw a big boom in business after World War I. There were so many bereaved looking for answers that even Houdini’s good friend and Sherlock Holmes creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, bought into the frenzy of posthumous contact.
Magic historians always told Zoldak “‘at some point in time everybody finds their guy.’ That’s the guy that you want to know everything about. And you spend your life researching them and trying to piece their life together. I guess Henry 'Box' Brown is my guy.”
It’s that passion for a specific magician that ensnares the magic collector the most. “Ray Goulet collected things that may not have had monetary value - they may not have been a rare piece, or a one-of-a-kind kind of thing - but they belonged to a specific magician, and he liked things that were associated with specific people; magicians that he knew, magicians that he admired,” Zoldak says. “And so that put more meaning on them than the rarity of the object itself.”
Clearly Zoldak is a passionate man and he’s not alone. By his own admission, other collectors have more than quadruple his library (and that’s not including David Copperfield, who purchased a few of the biggest magic collections in the world to amass the largest stockpile by a country mile). So why isn’t this pastime catching on?
Part of this is because magic collecting isn’t a particularly popular hobby among younger generations. “The new generation of collectors is not as oriented towards physical materials. They eschew books in favor of DVDs or downloads,” Zoldak says. “The love of books is not in the next generation, so I’m not sure where all these books are going to end up, but we are hoping to start attracting more young people into the club.”
Magic collecting is also expensive - or at least it can be. (Zoldak has received four-figure offers for some of this books.) Indeed, the appeal of magic is muted in a world where the explanation of how David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear is only a few clicks away online. That said, people are still entertained by magic shows, but collecting historical artifacts in the field doesn’t have the same appeal as it once did in a pre-internet age, when trickery was a lot harder to make sense of.
That brings us to today, where magic is largely an old trade in a new world. The only other magic collectors' conventions around are either on an indefinite hiatus or are private events held by enthusiasts who aren’t part of any official organization. “It’s sad and exciting,” Zoldak says of his new position, carrying out his dear friend’s legacy in a world where the Yankee Gathering may be the last of its kind. “It’s exciting that we’re going to be the focus,” he says. The sad part is self-explanatory.
The contemporary climate doesn’t offer the sunniest outlook for the magic collecting community, but if there’s one thing magicians know, it’s how to escape deadly situations. Of course, death itself can never be tamed, but magic performance was never about breaking the laws of nature. Instead, it’s about providing illusions that offer a sense of supernatural hope, of conquering the impossible. No one lives forever, but it’s the magician’s craft to pass on these uplifting dreams, this sense of wonder, no matter how dire things may seem. A magician can seemingly resurrect a person sawed in half, impaled by an arrow, or squished into an iron maiden. The threat of losing cultural relevance, however, is the magic collector’s greatest danger.