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Presto change-o: Long Beach magic shop will soon vanish for good

What if you want to make a coin disappear — to one moment display it in the palm of your hand and the next pull it out of a friend’s ear?

What if you’d like to say to a stranger, “Pick a card, any card,” then shuffle the deck and, just like that, produce the right one?

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How do you learn to turn a handkerchief into flowers? To push a bottle cap through the glass bottom of a Coke bottle?

You probably could hop on the Internet and watch a YouTube video.

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But really, where’s the magic in that?

There used to be many a shop where a wide-eyed child might go, places to buy tricks and learn how to do them.

Behind the counter of such an establishment might be a real magician, who knew his silks from his color-changing plumes and could fan cards at supersonic speed.

Clumsy fingers could learn from nimble ones. Little ears could hear a master cast a spell with his patter.

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An aspiring Carter the Great could leave such a place, practice for hours at home in front of a mirror — and then come back again and again to learn more.

In Long Beach, there is such a shop, but little time left for visits, which is sad.

Because when you walk into Presto Magic, it feels magic, straight out of the Harry Potter books it long predates.

At the counter is Fredric “Presto” Broder, who might be a wizard. He looks just how a wizard should look.

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He has tufts of white hair on the sides of his bald head. He has a white beard and piercing blue eyes.

He seems old enough to have seen magic kingdoms rise and fall. Around his neck, on a thick silver chain, he often wears a medallion of a castle.

Where do you rest your eyes first? On him? Or on shelf after shelf stacked with box upon box?

The shop is a place of wonder, long and narrow and crowded with mysteries.

Each box bears a label, handwritten by Presto. Most are drawings and descriptions of contents that sound mind-bogglingly marvelous.

Magic tricks — cups and balls, blooming bouquets — cover the right-hand wall:

“Mini In-n-outer box: The red box fits into the black box but the black box fits into the red box.”

“Flying Coins! A modern miracle! Coins jump from one cup to the other one by one!”

“Bottle Botania: Bottle turns into a bouquet instantly!”

“Ultimate Airborne: As you pour, the glass floats!”

Gags — wobbly pencils, hand buzzers — cover the left-hand wall:

“Safe movie rock: ‘Bonk’ someone today! Throw it at a friend!”

“Squirt camera: Looks Real! Really squirts! A $4.95 value, $2.95 while they last!”

Every other space in the shop is filled with something interesting: old magic magazines, a Siegfried & Roy boxed set of tricks, dragon statuettes, “Star Trek” memorabilia, MAD magazines from the 1970s.

To never discover such a place would be terrible. To discover it in its final days is to feel joy and grief simultaneously.

This happened to the brothers Lopez — ages 13 and 10.

Brandon, the younger one, got into magic a few months ago. Then he got his brother hooked.

“My first time to this store, I didn’t know where to start, top to bottom, right to left,” said Bryan, the elder.

And that was only about a week ago, almost too late. Now when they come, they spend hours at a time, trying in vain to take it all in.

The store is closing on Friday after more than three decades in three locations.

Why? For a lot of reasons, all distinctly unmagical.

The chief wizard is 81. In a previous life, he was a speech professor. He’s maybe just a little tired of working.

His wife is not in good health. His own health needs some checking on too.

He started selling magic when he was poor and young because he loved it. It was a way to buy the tricks he coveted, at wholesale prices.

Bit by bit, magic took over his life, which for a long time was great. He performed at the Magic Castle. His store became the biggest on the West Coast, he says.

But then the numbers in his books stopped adding up, and the stress cut into the pleasure.

He used to own his shop until about five years ago, when city redevelopment plans essentially forced him out, he says. Now he rents, and the rent’s too high.

Most of the people crowding into the store in recent days are coming only because it’s their last chance. Old-timers come too to say goodbye — adults who fell for magic as kids and then returned to it to feel like kids again.

John Altpeter, a fellow magician, is often in the shop by Presto’s side. Wizard-like as well, he has a long gingery beard and tinted orange glasses that complement it.

He loves to demonstrate tricks to customers. His fingers move so gracefully, you can never see them do what they’re doing. But sleight of hand can’t hide how he feels about losing this place to talk magic and do magic all day.

“This is it,” he says, shoulders slumped. “It’s the end of something.”

Presto nods.

In this shop are tricks to turn water solid and to make objects of all kinds disappear and then reappear. There are tricks to send real doves flying out of seemingly empty pans, to tear sheets of paper into bits and then make them whole again.

But nothing in any of the many boxes can bring back the magic when it’s gone.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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