You can buy milk, bread, liquor, things that slake thirst and other commonplace hungers, at lots of places. But at the Browser's Den (875 Eglinton West, 416-783-7022) you can feed your sense of wonder. I enter the shop and exchange pleasantries with the proprietor, a young man named Jeff Pinsky.
"What's new?" I ask, and he goes to a felt-covered box, lifts the lid, reaches inside and announces, "This is pretty good".
One thing I love about magic is that it's full of secrets and arcana, and although raw information can be transferred using our spiffy new media, secrets and arcana require more traditional means: books, for example, and places of congregation like the Browser's Den.
Now, for example, two or three other customers who have been inspecting the merchandise suspended from the walls or reading the spines of the many books on display eagerly turn their attention to Jeff. But at a card table in the middle of the shop, a group of young men not yet out of their teens continue to show each other passes, controls and false shuffles. They've already seen what's new.
This is my favourite magic shop. It's been in business for 30 years, not always at its current location. It was opened by the late Len Cooper, a transplanted Brooklynite who resembled a beefy Groucho Marx.
"Are you a religious person?" Jeff demands.
I shrug. "Not really."
"Well, this may change your mind."
Jeff holds up two oversized metal washers and shows me that both have a hole drilled in the centre.
"It's a very holy experience."
Jeff affects a rather deadpan manner when he demonstrates the magic tricks, in homage to the extremely droll Len Cooper, from whom he purchased the shop 10 years ago. Cooper grew up frequenting the legendary Tannen's Magic Shop in New York City, and understood that such establishments are about much more than trade and custom.
"Hold out your hand," Jeff instructs me.
He places one of the washers on my palm, then folds my hand closed. Then he covers the hole of the other washer with his own thumb and forefinger, keeping the rest of the metal disc in view. He pulls those fingers away, and there is no longer a hole in the washer. Jeff instructs me to open my hand - my washer now has two holes drilled through it.
"Wow," I whisper.
"That's one of Jay's," Jeff tells me, meaning Jay Sankey, a local magician responsible for an astounding number of astounding effects.
I want to mention that Toronto is indeed a wonderfully magical city. In addition to the endlessly inventive Sankey, there's the mentalist James Biss, who works tirelessly at creating a Magical Arts Festival in Toronto and establishing performers in downtown venues; Baldini, who has managed to get into many of those venues; Magic Mike, who runs a magic camp for kids; and, of course, the internationally renowned David Ben.
The reason I like magic shops in general and the Browser's Den in particular has everything to do with that whispered "Wow."
I mean, immediately afterwards I start thinking of ways the thing might be accomplished, telling myself, as we all do, that it was just a trick.
But there was that small moment when all I could do was whisper "Wow."