Inspired by a childhood filled with fairies where “magical things happened,” sisters Lib Schley and Mayor Watts Hitchcock opened The Magic Shop in 1947, they “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 were the sisters’ first creations. Craftsman Freddie Foster made these toys by hand because of the shortages of WWII. Proceeds went to charity, first to the Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington and 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 of an Easter rabbit’s hole. A slide was built into the old staircase leading down into a labyrinth of painted tree roots. Between the roots were scenes of rabbit adventures, such as the inauguration of a rabbit governor, in honor of Christie Whitman, Governor of New Jersey. “As a child, I was fascinated by ‘Alice in Wonderland,'” said Lib. “I remember the Mad Matter, the March Hare and other characters Alice saw when she slid into the rabbit’s hole in the garden and thought it would be wonderful if real children could walk with Alice.”
At Christmas time came Santa Claus. A horse-drawn sleigh took the children to a tinsel decorated barn. Elves, dressed in red tights and hats with bells, led them into a stall where Santa was surrounded by gifts. Afterwards, Lib and Mayor, wearing fur-trimmed folk costumes from Europe, helped the children to hot chocolate and anise-flavored cookies.
When the shop was destroyed by fire in 1966, it moved temporarily to the Far Hills Center and instead of a horse-drawn sleigh, Santa came by helicopter. Afraid of flying, Santa amply fortified himself with Christmas cheer before taking off from a farmer’s field. Dressed in their fur costumes, Lib and Mayor nervously watched his arrival from their car. When a policeman stopped to ask who they were and what they were doing they replied, “Officer, can’t you see were are Mrs. Claus and the Good Fairy?”
In the 1960’s, Mayor moved to England and began collecting antiques for the shop. Local artist, Peggy Pulleyn, hand painted Beatrix Potter rabbits on children’s clothing 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 4 known carousel animals made by french craftsman Denzel. It sold at Sothebys in 1989 for a record $158,000. The proceeds went to Bonnie Brae’s capital campaign to build the McNally Center.
Over the years many celebrities have come to the Magic Shop. John John Kennedy and Caroline, Pete Conrad, the third man on the moon, were among them. It was closing time in the 1960s when Mrs. Schley saw Jackie Kennedy coming up the walk toward the shop. “What am I going to say to her? Shall I mention the friends we have in common? No, just keep quiet. I’ll pretend not to recognize her,” she thought. Suddenly, she flung open the door, “Jackie come in,” she blurted.
The shop is still a family venture. Reeve, Lib’s son, an artist and teacher, and his wife, Georgie continue the tradition. Claudia Watts, Mayor’s daughter-in-law, is a volunteer, and Mai, Mayor’s daughter, still wears the fur-trimmed costume. A team of dedicated staff and long time volunteers make it special. A 1970s note from a Christmas elf reads, “The shop has a very particular personality. One loves it and doesn’t forget it. When I am back in town, I will come to visit you.”