Elmhurst curiosities shop traffics in the strange and magical

  • A creepy Santa look-alike greets customers and amateur magicians at the Bob James' Magic Shop & Curiosities in downtown Elmhurst.

    A creepy Santa look-alike greets customers and amateur magicians at the Bob James' Magic Shop & Curiosities in downtown Elmhurst. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Bob James opened his shop in downtown Elmhurst in 1992.

    Bob James opened his shop in downtown Elmhurst in 1992. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • This mummified bat hangs in eternal sleep behind glass at Bob James' Magic Shop & Curiosities in downtown Elmhurst.

    This mummified bat hangs in eternal sleep behind glass at Bob James' Magic Shop & Curiosities in downtown Elmhurst. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted3/9/2017 5:00 AM

Perhaps the biggest curiosity about Bob James' Magic Shop & Curiosities in downtown Elmhurst is the shop itself.

You can spend a lot of time in a lot of suburban downtowns without coming across a store where you can buy bones from an assortment of animals, straitjackets, gothic religious iconography and, of course, magic tricks to amaze and amuse your friends.

 

Step inside the business at the corner of York and First streets and it's a little like walking into something out of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!"

Many of the items in the eclectic collection are for sale, including the mummified remains of a cat discovered in a Victorian-era barn, a variety of antique rosaries, and a collection of unusual and somewhat creepy art.

Other pieces are not for sale, such as the skull of a two-faced calf that was born in 1955 and died shortly thereafter.

The man behind the counter is magician and proprietor Bob James, 50, who opened the shop in 1992 as a way to give himself more exposure as a magician.

Having a brick-and-mortar location, he says, gives his act more validity than if he just booked appearances out of his house. Having a place to meet potential customers face to face "makes me a little different from my competition," James said.

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Bob James, magician and proprietor of Bob James' Magic Shop & Curiosities in downtown Elmhurst, shows off a fortuneteller machine from the old Riverview Park in Chicago.
Bob James, magician and proprietor of Bob James' Magic Shop & Curiosities in downtown Elmhurst, shows off a fortuneteller machine from the old Riverview Park in Chicago. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

When the store first opened, many of its shelves were filled with book after book about how to perform and perfect tricks for aspiring magicians of all ages.

Now many of those books have been replaced with a smaller collection of instructional DVDs. "It became, 'How do I fill up this space?' because the magic industry was taking a hit and it was slowing down," James said.

One benefit of the switch was that it freed space for his collection of oddities -- some of which seem straight out of a nightmare.

But once you get past the human leg bone, the creepy Santa and the mummified bat displayed in a small metal box that looks like a miniature coffin, the magic really begins.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

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s because James also uses the venue to host magic-themed birthday parties for children. He performs a show to start the party and then leads the kids in a workshop where they learn age-appropriate magic tricks.

He also provides partygoers with pizza and cake.

"He is very talented," longtime customer and friend Daniel Smulson said. "His magic shows always get the kids laughing, even the moms."

The skull of a two-headed calf is one of the many bizarre things on display at Bob James' Magic Shop & Curiosities in Elmhurst.
The skull of a two-headed calf is one of the many bizarre things on display at Bob James' Magic Shop & Curiosities in Elmhurst. - Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Just getting to the party room is a kind of trick. The staircase leading down to the party room is hidden by an ordinary-looking wall of merchandise that James can magically open.

Smulson, who works across the street, said he befriended James soon after first walking into the shop.

He says the secret of James' success -- besides his ability to do amazing things with playing cards and foam balls -- is his basic kindness.

"Bob is one of the most generous people I have ever met," Smulson said. "He would give the shirt off his back to anybody."

James is also something of a local magic historian. He has collected information and documents about Elmhurst's own Harlan Tarbel, a nationally known stage magician and illustrator active throughout the early 20th century.

James also has a 1926 photograph of Elmhurst firefighters posing in front of what is now his shop when it was still People's Bank.

His interest in history aside, James knows the future is a murky one for magicians and the art of illusion. Public interest is declining and there's always the threat that one day the last remaining magician will truly disappear.

Indeed, James performed his own vanishing act back in 2010 when he closed the shop for 30 months because roadwork made it difficult for patrons to find their way in.

But he says he received calls from parents whose children had attended birthday parties or taken magic lessons at the shop and wanted him to reopen. And so, like any good magician, he pulled a rabbit out of his hat and made his store reappear.

"I didn't think we were going to come back as a retail store in this town," he said, "but people kept asking about our programs for children."

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