By Koko Christiaanse
Photography by Emma Kappeyne
— The Circus Store on Amsterdam’s Staalstraat isn’t big. Its storefront is just larger than a one-by-one meter window. In the display: sparkly hula hoops, colorful diabolos, and intriguing Japanese kendama toys. Inside, juggling balls are stacked on shelves, gymnastic ribbons hung on hooks, and hoops lined on racks. In the back, presiding over it all, sits a fatherly looking man in a blue plaid shirt. Visible through the glass behind him, the workshop where he makes his own circus products.
This is David Marchant, owner of The Circus Winkel. He runs the store together with his former spouse, Anne van Raaij.
The story begins with Mandarins.
“I worked in a cement factory when I was like, eighteen,” says Marchant. “When we’d swept the place, we’d have to wait for the dust to settle. […] There was this fruit stand outside, so we began juggling mandarins and such”.
The path from mandarin juggler to circus-store owner was not a straightforward one. After the cement factory, Marchant began his professional life as a banker in London. “You were walking into a dead-end job. Sounds exciting, but it really isn’t.”
Marchant left the bank in March of 1976. He told himself, I’m not going back until it rains. It was the driest summer ever recorded.
The road to Amsterdam began with Apples.
After his banking stint, Marchant became an apple-picker to support his juggling hobby. After catching wind that apple-pickers in Switzerland are paid by the hour rather than the bushel he rode his motorbike down to the Swiss Öpfelfarms.
Once in Switzerland, Marchant encountered a group of strangely accented foreigners peering into the motorcap of their van along the road. They were a Dutch travelling band from the Nieuwmarkt. Marchant knew how to play the guitar — so he joined their band.
He travelled with the lowlanders for a month, performing in Swiss streets and Italian cafés. Five years later he moved to Amsterdam; five hundred meters away from the Nieuwmarkt. He is still in contact with his former bandmates today.
Marchant’s expertise in circus skills stems from his street performing background. Inspired by the Dutch, he bought his own truck and travelled through Southern Europe between 1979 and 1982. It was a show that incorporated magic, movement, juggling, singing, and a wind-up record player. According to Marchant, skills such as juggling, poi, and hooping were kept primarily in circus families. Marchant says, “Everything you see in the shop now, it didn’t exist. So you had to make it yourself”.
The Circus Winkel was birthed in Vondelpark on Queen’s day, 1982. Marchant, together with his former spouse Anne, sold cloth juggling balls at the traditional open market. “The deal was: learn to juggle in ten minutes, if you do, you get the balls for free,” says Marchant. “We sold all the balls we had that day.”
The juggling-ball profits became the seed money for scaling up Marchant’s overarching brand, Spotlight Circus Labs. They “organically” scaled up to produce silicone juggling balls, juggling clubs, kendamas, and hula hoops. The original juggling balls still hang in the store today.
The Circus store in the form we know today opened in 2000. The quality of the products is key. Marchant says, “I don’t know if it’s special, but one thing that’s unique is that I can touch something and say it’s a good product. Everything is good here.”
Relationships with customers and suppliers are crucial to Marchant, who calls the store a “teaching and learning experience”. It seems to pay off for professionals and hobbyists alike.
Alan Sulc is a professional bounce Juggler and holder of four world records for force bounce patterns. He met with Marchant in November and was astounded by the quality of the balls. He says, “The ball is amazing, every bounce juggler should juggle with this ball. He [Marchant] was fantastic, he knows what you need. He’s genius.”
Stavros from Cyprus calls himself a “backyard street artist”. He is a hobbyist who enjoys trying and learning different circus skills. He says, “I think they are perfect. They’re helpful, very helpful. Six stars from five”.
Despite overwhelming praise from customers, Marchant admits that “if we break even, we are doing well.” To Marchant, money is secondary. Knowing that he delivers the best quality motivates him to continue running the Circus Store. “It’s a personal accomplishment when somebody likes what I chose from the shop. That’s where the enjoyment comes from.”
Although there are arguments for closing, Marchant says he wants to run his shop as long as he has interest. He sees it as a “social institution”; “How do you replace a running store while people are happy? It’s an enriching place. You can’t put a price tag on that.”