Founders Montse Prats and Marc Valli met when they were working at a failing art bookshop on Charing Cross road in the nineties.
The world had just started to wake up to the possibilities of the internet and to open a bookshop at a time when everyone else was dreaming of becoming an overnight millionaire by starting a dotcom business was a peculiar idea—to say the least.
The two forged ahead anyway, thinking (incorrectly as it turns out) that one couldn’t spend one’s whole life online, and telling themselves: wouldn’t it be nice to come across a place like the one we have in mind while walking down the street (and being able to visit it regularly to get new ideas and meet interesting people)?
They opened their first shop on Earlham street in Covent Garden in February 2000. The location had been scientifically chosen in order to coincide with Marc's favourite sandwich shop—which, to his disappointment, closed down as soon as they opened—as well as the place where Montse bought most of her clothes in the sales—which also shut down soon afterwards.
Despite painful differences in musical taste (Montse liked to play Bjork, which to Marc’s ears sounded like a strangled cat), management style and vision (Montse just wanted to focus on the one shop, while Marc already saw himself at the head of a vast international network), the shop prospered and was followed by a space in Clerkenwell in 2001, then one in Manchester a couple of years later.
They started a shop purely dedicated to design products in 2007 (again by Seven Dials in Covent Garden) and this allowed them to expand their range and address a wider clientele—allowing, for example, non-designers in their families (meaning everyone in their families) to finally be able to find something they would actually like to buy in one of their shops.
Over the years, Montse has stubbornly refuted the label ‘giftshop’, arguing that the products they sell are strictly functional—even if the exact function is not always clear to the occasional shopper. In 2009, recognizing that the book business had changed irrevocably (kind of gone down the drain, really) and frustrated at not being able to find the highly creative products they wanted to stock, they decided to start their own product lines, ranging from high-quality (and affordable) prints, t-shirts, totes and other accessories, to stationery, games and, even—why the hell not?—books.
Since then, Magma has built an important partnership with publishing house Laurence King, developing a list of creative products and gifts under the banner of ‘Magma For Laurence King’. These have included the much loved game Bird Bingo, a series of trump games on themes varying from fashion to bikes and art (Fashion Face-Off, Battle of the Bikes, The Art Game), innovative stationery such as the series of Magma Sketchbooks, The Bicycle Travel Journal and The Street Food Journal, and books such as Flip-Fashion and the just released the Stickyscapes series.
Incidentally, in 2009 Marc also started the contemporary art magazine Elephant, which is still housed at Magma, while Montse (to Marc’s stupefaction) kept coming up with preposterous ideas such as the above-mentioned Bird Bingo (still to date their most profitable creation) and creative collaborations such as Make Your Own Robot (also a hit).
After many years without opening new stores, Magma has launched a new flagship (just a couple of street down from where it all started) on Shorts Gardens, just off Neal Street. Considerably bigger than any of their previous shops, this ambitious new space aims to reflect the evolution of the Magma brand (from bookshop to a complete creative and lifestyle concept) and will include many new product lines, a large magazine selection (with plenty of space to sit around and browse), a print counter/bar and an accessories boutique. It will also house all manner of events and exhibitions relating to particular artists, themes, trends and styles (some of those in collaboration with Elephant magazine).
What is a shop? It is what those behind the counter share with their customers, it is that common experience, a series of more or less successful attempts at communicating ideas, needs, interests, passions, obsessions, dreams.
We think that there is something extremely rich and dynamic in the notion that people, all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, are walking through our doors on a daily basis, looking for something, not always sure what they are looking for. More often than not, these visitors are more knowledgeable with regards to their areas of interest than we are, or could ever hope to be.
And this keeps us going. A shop feeds on feedback. It thrives on people’s responses, on their enthusiasm and their frustration, on their ideas of what is good or bad, on what they want to buy and what they don’t.
A shop is unthinkable without that highly stimulating flow, individuals walking in with their ideas, with their more or less intense curiosity, their various personal concerns, their quirks, their calm or manic energy, their unique point of view. Imagine a shop as a vial in which more or less volatile substances mix to release energy.
Walking into Magma should be like walking into a thermometer, an instrument indicating ‘where things are at’ at a certain point in time and space. Not because we think so, but as a result of that process, that alchemy: the power of suggestions, connections, reactions, interactions, over-reactions… The power of someone pushing through a door and looking around.
This, of course, is something you cannot replicate online. The internet, that wonderful invention, can bring you everything – except a breath of fresh air. So this is the essence of what we do: to try and capture some of that influx and crystallize it under one roof. Do come and visit us: you may even find something you would like to buy…