About This Blog

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm not on board with the whole ebook thing. I enjoy books in all their formats. But there is nothing quite like a bookstore with its neatly arranged shelves of books and artfully created displays of new arrivals, best sellers, and suggested reading. I especially enjoy discovering small, independent bookstores and have made it my mission to visit and report back on as many of these gems as I can. That is my focus, but there is really nothing that is off limits as long as it is about books or reading. Hope you enjoy my blog and come back often.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cross One Off the Bucket List

Prairie Lights
15 South Dubuque St.
Iowa City, IA 52240

Forgive me, Sparty, for I have found another. No. No. Don't get me wrong. You will always be my number one, but I have developed a new admiration for another B1G university. Okay, so it's mainly just another university town, but still, I feel a tiny bit guilty. Allow me to explain. Recently while on our annual trek to the Pyrotechnics Guild International convention, this year held in Mason City, IA, my husband and I had occasion to spend a night in Iowa City, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes. It's not East Lansing, but it's a wonderful place. Almost immediately, I fell in love with the city. Friendly people, great restaurants, live Friday-night music in the charming town square, and of course bookstores--what's not to love? Our stopover in Iowa City was actually prompted by a bookstore that has been on my bucket list for several months now. (See Bucket List.) I was excited to have this opportunity to visit well-known book lovers' bookstore, Prairie Lights, and happy to have my husband Jim along on this visit.

Robert Peterson at the front desk
We had barely checked into our hotel on this beautiful August afternoon before heading out into the city on foot. I had fortunately selected a hotel only a few blocks from the bookstore, so it wasn't long before we arrived at an impressive double-door entrance surrounded by polished granite and topped with a large metal and glass arch displaying the store name, seemingly held aloft by two sculpted hands. Upon entering Prairie Lights, we were warmly greeted by gracious staff person, Robert Peterson, who was manning the front desk. After a brief exchange, Robert directed me to another desk in the back where store owner, Jan Weissmiller was hard at work. Jim browsed while I made my way back.

I was immediately struck by the 1980's-era computer on which Jan was hard at work. Now, I hadn't seen an old amber screen in at least 20 years, and it initially became the subject of conversation. Nice to see an old machine like that still in productive use. Our conversation quickly shifted to the store, and Jan cheerfully filled me in. Her expansive knowledge of the place is not surprising given the fact that she has been working at Prairie Lights since 1979, only about a year after it was opened by Jim Harris. Jan and partner, Jane Mead, bought the shop in 2008 when Jim retired.

The large store occupies 11,000 square feet on three and a half floors. The half floor currently houses a coffee house, but in the 1930's it was a literary salon visited by the likes of Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, and E. E. Cummings. A strong literary vibe is everywhere, and no wonder. The University of Iowa is home to one of the most revered creative writing programs in the country boasting a distinguished list of award-winning faculty members and graduates. Prairie Lights enjoys a close connection to the Writers' Workshop, providing books for the program and consequently hosting plenty of author signing events.

Half a level below the cafe on the third floor, I met events coordinator, Kathleen Johnson, who pointed out one of the most prominent features on that floor. The "Writing In Iowa" section is a wall of books written by Writers' Workshop graduates. Among them I noticed in particular a recent read of mine, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicholas Butler. Kathleen informed me that another Workshop graduate, best selling author Curtis Sittenfeld, once actually worked at Prairie Lights. Like I said, the literary vibe here is strong.

A large bay window overlooking one of Iowa City's bustling main streets offers a window seat and chairs for patrons to relax. Chairs are sprinkled here and there throughout all three bright, well-organized floors. Clear signage makes it easy for shoppers to find what they are looking for, but there is no shortage of staff members to help as well.

While my husband continued to browse on the two main levels, I took a quick trip to the lower level to check out the children's section. There I found creative displays of picture books to entice the younger set as well as a healthy selection of young adult titles, toys, games, puzzles, and the like.

Best-selling authors are not the only notable people to visit Prairie Lights. Before I left the store, Jan caught up with me long enough to pose with a picture of President Obama, who visited the shop not long ago.

Jan with photo of President Obama's visit
Meanwhile, my husband had not only selected a few titles to purchase for himself, but had also found a Prairie Lights t-shirt for me. We both enjoyed our visit to Prairie Lights, and it was great to cross another wonderful bookstore off my bucket list. Prairie Lights is indeed a book lover's bookstore. This book lover loved it.

Coming soon: Our Iowa City adventure was not over yet. We managed to squeeze in another bookstore visit during our brief, one-night stay. Watch for that upcoming post.

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