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Funny, friendly and unique – Magma is on a mission to establish its brand and expand its retail operation after surviving a tough few years on the high street. Andre Paine discusses Clerkenwell creativity, working in the pub and "Bird Bingo" with co-founder Marc Valli...

Magma is not your typical shop and Marc Valli is not your typical shopkeeper. The cultish store on Clerkenwell Road is packed with intriguing design books, unusual stationery and cool products you won't find in high street chains, as well as arty magazines that are just a little bit pretentious (but in a good way). Magma's a burgeoning brand, too, with its own range of products and cutting-edge books. Yet there's nothing intimidating about Magma, which stocks children's books and games alongside designer toys for grownups, original posters and gifts including tartan iPhone cases. Its big Christmas hit was the very British concept Bird Bingo, and you can also wear Magma's range of T-shirts featuring a cheery-looking Jean-Michel Basquiat or David Hockney.

"There's definitely a sense of humour - we've always been very keen on that," says Marc Valli, the Brazilian-born co-founder of Magma, which also has two branches in Covent Garden and one in Manchester. It's 14 years since they opened in Earlham Street and they're planning another London store. The flagship store in EC1 is certainly more welcoming than those independent gallery bookshops where standoffish employees don't seem interested in selling you anything.

"People come into the shop and feel they have somebody behind the counter who is thinking, not just a robot," says Valli, who grew up outside Sao Paulo and studied in Switzerland. He's an amiable bundle of ideas, opinions and blunt honesty about the travails of running a bookshop. When the recession hit, Valli and co-owner Montse Ortuno Prats spent more time in the store to keep it on track. "We were on the shop floor for two years just to try and bring back certain values that were important – very simple things like being nice to customers," says Valli.

While other retailers were swept away by the downturn and internet competition, Magma employed a bold strategy: launch new products with a smart yet light-hearted approach. Valli shows me prototypes for a DIY board game kids can customize and a swish fold-out sticker book called Stickerscapes London. Their next project involves spaceships and ray guns aimed at adults, he tells me excitedly. "That kind of thing has in a way become our main source of income," says Valli. "Trying to do things that feel creative but are aimed at a wider market and are good gifts."

Magma sketchbooks are a big seller but their huge hit is Bird Bingo, which appeals to a nation of twitchers and bingo lovers– and the vivid illustrations of 64 birds selected by Montse Ortuno Prats are impossible to resist. "Bird Bingo's been very good - that's kept us in business," says Valli. "But there is a real attempt to make something culturally interesting." Bug Bingo soon followed.

bird-bingo

Their product range was eased along by an association with EC1 arts publisher Laurence King. Valli has recently published Walk the Line on how illustration is thriving in the digital age, followed by A Brush with the Real about figurative painting. Having moved to London to attend film school, he ended up working in marketing, editing scripts and writing unpublished novels; he's now busy authoring art books, editing Elephant magazine and dreaming up new products.

And the ideas flow in some familiar social spots rather than the shop basement. "I'm not here most of the time because I'm at The Eagle pub on Farringdon Road," says Valli. "We mostly work from there believe it or not. We sometimes go to Moro, not to have lunch because that's too expensive and we're not doing that well." Despite the economic challenges, Valli certainly has no regrets about opening the EC1 branch in 2001. "I still feel this is the best place to be if you're into art and design," he says. "There's a much higher percentage of creatives here than almost anywhere else in London, including Shoreditch and Hackney." He stresses that Clerkenwell is where you will actually find "working designers, working artists, working art directors."

Magma

However, design culture is completely diff erent from a decade ago, when Magma was a Mecca for students and art buyers from advertising agencies seeking inspiration; now they have the internet. "The digital side of things has changed everything and we're having to adapt," says Valli. He concedes that Magma's website has been unloved for a while, though plans a relaunch soon with competitive pricing and exclusives. "And if anyone calls us up we'll pick up the phone," he adds. "Have you ever tried to call Amazon?". He's got a point. And as I browse the shelves brimming with creativity after our interview, I realise it has another advantage over the online giant: Magma's a shop that makes you smile while you spend. 
www.magmabooks.com

MAGMA–ZINES
Need a new magazine in your life? Magma has one of the best selections of high-end periodicals in London...

elephant

Elephant
Marc Valli is editor-in-chief of Elephant, the quarterly magazine about contemporary art and visual culture, so each edition is an intriguing snapshot of his current passions. The spring issue explores subjects ranging from the continued relevance of painting in the digital age to Santiago and public art. And look out for June's summer edition, issue 19, which is promising an interview with the fi rst artist to go into space.
www.frameweb.com, £14.95

bingo-2-

Article
This is a handsome, biannual men's lifestyle magazine with an exposed spine and stitching as well as different types of paper. Their fashion focus is less po-faced than certain titles and subjects in the next issue range from vintage typewriters to childhood holidays. Despite the rise of reading online, Valli says sales of magazines such as Article are resilient thanks to an appetite for "fresh material in print that is nicely designed, nicely curated".
www.the-article-magazine.com, £11

bingo-3-

Cereal
Perhaps a magazine to peruse at the breakfast table, Cereal is a full-colour, quarterly title rooted in its editors' passions for food, travel and books. Issue 5 features an absorbing article on the history of honey, travel features on Helsinki, Paris and Charleston, South Carolina and a guide to essential travel bags for your next trip. And there's also a glorious photo essay on the Isles of Scilly.
www.readcereal.com, £10

 

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