Ken’s Magic Shop keeps an intergenerational art alive in Iowa

Alex Garcia and Ken Marlin display tricks behind the counter at Iowa’s only brick-and-mortar magic shop: Ken’s Magic Shop in Hiawatha. — Robert Lindsey-Nassif/Little Village

From the ancient oracles who conjured voices and visions in Greek temples to the latest illusionist on America’s Got Talent, the art of magic only endures if its secrets are shared with the next generation.

That intergenerational legacy is on full display at Ken’s Magic Shop in Hiawatha, where the shop’s owner, 73-year-old Ken Marlin, shares the joy and wonder of prestidigitation with his customers and his associate salesperson, 16-year-old budding magician Alex Garcia.

Marlin’s love of magic started as a 10-year-old boy in Ottumwa, when he witnessed a magician performing apparent miracles on The Ed Sullivan Show in the ’50s. Marlin sent away for a beginner’s magic kit, and has been a student of the impossible ever since.

Until recent years, Marlin was employed as a Security Supervisor and Correctional Officer at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, where, no doubt, his magical skills of commanding attention while creating a distraction were useful. In retirement, he worked at a magic store in Marion and became an active part of the Cedar Rapids magic community. But when that store closed as a result of pandemic downturns, Marlin decided to open his own shop, so local magicians would still have a place to hang their top hats — not to mention a venue to host monthly meetings for professional and amateur magicians.

Ken’s Magic Shop is stocked floor to ceiling with an astonishing array of magic tricks and supplies for magicians of all ages, from beginners to professionals: kits, magic books, jokes and gags, puzzles, juggling equipment, puppets and ventriloquist supplies as well as a mesmerizing variety of playing cards — some gimmicked for magical effect, others that are artwork in their own right.

Ken’s Magic Shop, 320 Blairs Ferry Rd NE, Hiawatha. — Robert Lindsey-Nassif/Little Village

To help run the shop and demonstrate magic tricks, Marlin hired Garcia, an up-and-coming magician. In one of his feats, Garcia unwraps a Life Saver hard candy, spins it, causes it to levitate in midair and eventually float into his mouth! Customers can purchase this trick for themselves and, like all tricks in the shop, Garcia or Marlin will teach them how to perform it. A magic shop, after all, sells secrets.

Like his employer, Garcia’s love of magic began as a child.

“My grandpa made a coin appear and disappear behind my ear. It fooled me,” Garcia recalled. “He knew some rope tricks, too, and showed me where to learn more tricks on YouTube.”

Garcia is a junior in high school, where he is known as “Magic Man.” He carries a deck of cards with him at all times and often amuses fellow students at lunch time or in the hallways with his tricks. Last summer, he won a scholarship to a magic camp in Pennsylvania, where he spent a week at Bryn Mawr College (which looks the part of a wizarding school — the 138-year-old institution features stately stone buildings containing great halls and majestic vaulted ceilings). There, he was tutored by older, established magicians, who passed along wisdom.

Now, he’s developing his skills through reading magic books, attending magic conventions and absorbing occasional advice from Marlin.

And this is exactly why Marlin opened his den of wonders in Hiawatha. While Marion’s Iowa Magic Shop lives on as an online and pop-up store, Ken’s is the only brick-and-mortar magic shop left in Linn County — and the state of Iowa.

“You never know when you might spark an interest in magic in someone that will stay with them for life,” Marlin said. “Someday some youngster will grow up and remember that guy in the magic shop.”

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Alex Garcia and Ken Marlin at Ken’s Magic Shop in Hiawatha. — Robert Lindsey-Nassif/Little Village

Robert Lindsey Nassif is a composer/lyricist/librettist who has worked on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally with Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller, Carol Burnett and Disney Feature Animation. This article was originally published in Little Village’s November 2023 issue.