Interview with a Bookstore: Prairie Lights
Once Upon a Time the President Came to Visit
Jim Harris had finished all of the work for a PhD in History and was stalled on his dissertation. He then started working in a bookstore and realized he would like to open one of his own. He got a small inheritance from his grandparents and moved back to Iowa City. In May 1978, he opened Prairie Lights. Iowa City has continued to be a good place for independent book selling!
What's your favorite section of the store?
Jan Weissmiller (Co-owner): Poetry, of course.
Tim Budd (Bookseller): Fiction, hands down. I love a good story told well.
Kathleen Johnson (Events Coordinator): Fiction—I love to recommend books to people based on what they’ve loved.
If you had infinite space, what would you add?
Jan: It would be nice to have a permanent room that was designed and always ready for readings given that we have author events nearly every day. It would also be nice to have more community space for kids. I would love a place where they could do art projects, write and design things!
Terry (Sci-Fi Buyer and Operations Manager): More cowbell.
Tim: I wish we had a permanent room that was designed and always ready for readings. We have author events nearly every day and pushing aside the rolling units and setting up the chairs and sound system on a daily basis can seem endless.
Kathleen: More cafe tables,
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Jan: We have such a literary community in Iowa City. The combination of The Writers’ Workshop, The International Writing Program, The Non-Fiction Writing Program, and the activity that goes on around our designation as a UNESCO City of Literature (currently the only one in the US) means that there are always writers in the store. They are, of course, here to read, but they are also here casually to shop and talk all the time. This means that we have a very personal and stimulating environment and we can include all of our customers in wonderful spontaneous discussion of books much of the time. Sometimes it seems like we hardly have to work at creating this atmosphere—its just the luck of the location—but we are stimulated by it and I think we have learned naturally to facilitate a pretty high–or maybe invitingly whacky–level of discourse.
Tim: I think it’s introducing readers to new works and authors, whether it be through author events or staff recommendations. We host such a variety of authors here that the reading community is constantly exposed to new writers and their latest work. And the staff is always eager to place a book they love into the hands of a customer looking for something worthwhile to read.
Kathleen: Bring in great authors of all types.
Who is your favorite regular?
Jan: It’s hard for me to choose one. James Galvin, a member of the poetry faculty of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a voracious reader of fiction as well as poetry. I really can’t keep up with him, but I love our discussions. I’m also incredibly fond of Burgess Kelly, one of the truly eccentric characters in Iowa City. He’s never been able to work, but he reads constantly and has been a customer since the store opened. We never know what he’ll say when he comes in.
Terry: There’s one customer whom I inadvertently startled once a few years ago who keeps trying to get me back.
Tim: There was a doctor, Dr. Brown, who came in weekly for his copy of The Irish Times. He had a wonderful accent, the most pleasant demeanor and was always so well-dressed—a very dapper gentleman. I was acting in an Irish play once, and he took the time to help me with some Gaelic pronunciation. Alas, he has passed away now, but it was always a pleasure to wait on him.
Kathleen: Indiebob. He has a pet project of visiting all of the independent bookstores in Ron Rice’s My Bookstore, and he has expanded beyond this and visits indie bookstores around the continental US and comes in and tells me about it. He is a retired junior high teacher and is also a musician, and he has an extremely good memory. He makes a point of talking to the staff at each store (and the owner if possible), and he mentions them by name and tells me what he bought based on their recommendations. He writes a blog.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Jan: Probably the time an irritating and embittered unsuccessful author snuck up behind the former director of the University of Iowa Press who was reading from his poetry and held up a communist flag. The reading was being filmed by public access TV and the culprit was intending to protest the fact that the press director had—very reasonably—refused to publish his work. We tried to evict him without disrupting the reading, but it wasn’t possible. This is the only person who has been permanently banned from the store. That was 25 years ago. Sometimes he tries to come back in—and sometimes I’ve backed down and let him in for a few minutes.
Terry: There are so many to choose from. One of the oddest was the woman who spent 30 minutes telling me about her plan to end the fighting in Kosovo by dropping bags of flower seeds instead of bombs. She felt that once the flowers bloomed, everyone would be in such a state of wonder they would stop fighting.
Tim: Craziest is perhaps not the best word to describe this, but certainly the most unique situation was President Obama’s visit to the store. The Secret Service closed off both ends of the street, no one could go in our out of the store (except employees arriving for work), and the sidewalks outside were crammed with folks hoping to see the President. He was in Iowa City making a speech at the university about the passage of the Health Care Act and had pointed out our store as an example of a local business that would benefit from the new legislation. We had the speech playing in the store; it was thrilling enough to hear Prairie Lights mentioned, but imagine our surprise when Obama walked in! He shook hands with every single employee and customer in the store at the time. I’ll remember it always.
Kathleen: Our store schizophrenic occasionally frightens customers, but he’s a nice fellow (usually) and buys a reasonable number of books. We ask him to leave sometimes if he gets too agitated and is frightening the other customers. Despite this we like him and accommodate him since there aren’t that many places he can go. One time he was strumming his guitar, singing in French, and his pants dropped to his ankles in front of a very surprised college girl who will never be the same.
It was also very crazy waiting on the President. I was at the cash register and had to ring up a book for Barack Obama. There were all kinds of cameras clicking away, both behind me at the register and all facing me, filling the store. It was otherwise quiet except for the cameras. I had no idea I would be doing that when I got up that morning. I would probably have washed my hair. I have an really anonymous name and had no internet presence prior to this, but then my picture was on the front of lots of newspapers and there I was on the White House website. I heard from lots of former classmates after that, through other friends. Thanks, Mr. President.
What’s your earliest memory of visiting a bookstore as a child?
Jan: There were no bookstores in my hometown. We went often to the spacious Carnegie Library. After I could read myself, I had a wonderful relationship with the librarian—Miss Fetteroff. I’m sure she’s the reason I’m both a reader and a bookseller today. We lived in northwest Illinois—about three hours northwest of Chicago. My father had business in Chicago a few times a year and he would take me to the Kroch’s and Brentano’s on Michigan Avenue and let me choose one or two books. I much preferred that to shopping for clothes at Marshall Fields!
Terry: Buying Tolkien’s Silmarillion at a B. Dalton the day it came out.
Tim: As a child, I was a weekly visitor to the Mark Twain Room of the Council Bluffs Public Library, but once in high school, I was a frequent customer at the B. Dalton’s in the new downtown mall. I just found if fascinating to see what was new, and the large format coffee table books they had. My first purchase? An oversized book on hygiene and personal grooming for men—just what this young man desperately needed. I even tried to apply for work there, but employees had to be bonded and I was not yet 18.
Kathleen: When I was a child it seems like I went a lot of places that were errands that meant staring at the vinyl fronts of customer service counters at cleaners and Montgomery Ward and places like this. I wasn’t taken to bookstores to browse since I didn’t have a job or any cash. I was allowed to pick books out from Scholastic when they were offered at school, which I really liked, and we went to the library. I think we only inherited books. All our Dr. Seusses had the name “Sharon Olds” inside the cover. I didn’t know Sharon but enjoyed her discards.
If you weren't working in a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Terry: Night watchman at a cranberry silo
Tim: I’d probably still be in the restaurant business, either waiting tables or tending bar, bemoaning my existence and spending too much money on books.
Kathleen: Writing the books? Would rather sell the books. It’s easier, and the quality is better.
What’s been your biggest surprise about working in a bookstore?
Jan: The biggest difference for me between simply working in the bookstore—which I did for many years—and being one of the owners—is the level of community involvement running it entails. In the last seven or eight years, I’ve had very moving insight into what the bookstore means to the community. And, have come to realize how important—and rewarding—it is to involve the rest of the staff in our community outreach.
Tim: I find the most surprising thing about working here is never knowing who will be stopping into the store on any given day. Authors, regular customers, former employees, even old friends and classmates from grad school always make a point of coming by if they’re in town. I came to work one day and saw Seamus Heaney sitting at a table signing copies of his book, as he was here talking at the university. Alison Bechdel stopped in after her keynote speech at a conference on graphic novels. I’ve met David Sedaris, Colm Toibin, Joseph Kanon, Jon Scalzi and Tony Kushner—all through the bookstore. It’s a wonderful gift!
Kathleen: I never thought about how many books cycle through a store. How you can’t always stock beloved titles from many years ago, because you have to make room in the store and the budget for the constant influx of new books. I don’t think a lot of people understand that you have to constantly be buying more, you can’t just stock the place like a dry goods store.
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