A Short History of The Magic Shop
By Georgie Schley
Inspired by a childhood filled with fairies, “where magical things happened,” and the World War II necessity of making your own toys, sisters Lib Schley and Mayor Watts Hitchcock opened The Magic Shop in 1947. The original store was in two separate houses on Main Street, Oldwick, on their mother’s, Mrs. David Boies, property. One was a 1773 clapboard house and the other an early 1800s General Store. The houses were among the oldest in the town, part of the Henry Miller farm. In the 1950’s they were connected, as they are today.
“We began with the idea of finding and creating toys that expressed the joy and wonder of a child’s world,” said Mayor Watts Hitchcock. Castles and play barns which turned into children’s desks, made by craftsman Freddie Foster, were their first creations. The proceeds went to charity, first the Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, and two years later to Bonnie Brae, a residential treatment center for youth at risk in Liberty Corner. Reeve Schley, Jr. was one of the Founders of the Medical Center and his mother was an early and critical supporter of Bonnie Brae.
Soon came the idea for an Easter rabbit hole, a make believe village in the attic and a slide down the old staircase. “As a child, I was fascinated by ‘Alice in Wonderland,'” said Mrs. Schley. “I remembered the Mad Hatter, The March Hare and other characters Alice saw when she slid into the rabbit hole in her garden and thought it would be wonderful if real children could walk with Alice.”
Along with the annual Easter event of the rabbit hole, Santa came at Christmas time. A horse drawn sleigh took the children to the tinsel decorated barn. Elves, dressed in red tights and hats with bells, led them into a stall where Santa was surrounded by packages. Mrs. Schley and Mrs. Watts, dressed in fur trimmed folk costumes from Europe, helped children onto the pony sleigh and served hot chocolate and anise cookies.
When the shop was destroyed by fire in 1966, Santa moved temporarily to the Far Hills Center, and instead of a horse drawn sleigh, he arrived by helicopter. That year, Santa was afraid of flying, so fortified himself with Christmas cheer before he took off from a farmer’s field. Dressed in their fur costumes, Mrs. Schley and Mrs. Watts watched Santa’s flight from their car. An approaching policeman asked what they were doing. “Can’t you see we are Mrs. Claus and the Good Fairy?” they replied.
In the 1960s Mayor Watts moved to England and began sending antiques to the shop. Peggy Pulleyn of Oldwick hand painted Beatrix Potter rabbits on children’s clothes and furniture. Two carousel animals, a rooster and a dog, were bought at a local auction for $75 each. For years they were used in the shop as decoration, sometimes outside in the snow and rain, other times inside for Easter. The rooster was dated 1895 and eventually was discovered to be one of only four known made by French carousel maker, Denzel. It sold at Sotheby’s in 1989 for a record $158,000. The proceeds went to finish Bonnie Brae’s capital campaign to build the McNally Center.
Over the years celebrities have come to buy unique handmade gifts or slide down the rabbit hole. John John and Caroline Kennedy, and Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon, were among them. It was at closing time in the ’60s when Mrs. Schley saw Jackie Kennedy coming up the walk towards the shop. “What am I going to say to her?” raced through her mind. “Shall I mention the friends we have in common? No, she wants to be unrecognized. Jackie, come in” she said, as she flung open the door.
The shop is still a family endeavor. Lib Schley’s son, Reeve, an artist and teacher, and wife, Georgie, now own it. Mayor Watts’ daughter-in-law, Claudia works there two days a week and Mai Watts still wears the fur trimmed costume of her mother, when she helps with Santa. The team of dedicated and talented staff and longtime volunteers makes it special. A ’70s note from a Christmas elf says it all. “The shop has a very particular personality which one really comes to love and doesn’t forget. When I am back in town, I will come to visit you.”