"This is a great place to have a bookstore,” Jan Weissmiller says of Iowa City, Iowa. And Prairie Lights has been a good place for Weissmiller to spend a life: she has worked at the iconic bookstore since she was hired by then-owner Jim Harris in 1979 at age 23.
Harris opened Prairie Lights in an 1,100-sq.-ft. retail space in downtown Iowa City in 1978, after selling farmland he’d inherited in order to finance his venture. Five years later, the store moved a few blocks to its current location, around the corner from the University of Iowa campus, filling three and a half floors in a building housing a separately owned café on the other half of its top floor.
In 2008, Weissmiller and the poet Jane Mead entered into a partnership to buy the store from Harris, and a year later they took over operation of the 1,100-square-foot café. Mead died in 2019.
For decades Prairie Lights has been the hub of Iowa’s vibrant literary scene, hosting the author reading series Live from Prairie Lights for 20 years. The series, initially broadcast by Iowa Public Radio, has been broadcast for the past decade by UI’s campus radio station.
As far as Weissmiller is concerned, though, what sustains Prairie Lights is UI’s 33,000 students, including those enrolled in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “It’s really lovely, in normal times, having undergraduates and grad students in here for hours,” she said. “They sit in the café and have coffee, then they go downstairs and look at books, then they go back to the café and work on their writing.”
Weissmiller points out that Leslie Jamison wrote much of her essay collection The Empathy Exams inside Prairie Lights’ café. And Brandon Taylor recently published 30 short stories in electronic journals, all of them set within the bookstore.
Like most indies, Prairie Lights closed its doors to customer traffic in March 2020, though it temporarily reopened during the holiday season, and again on Independent Bookstore Day. It is now closed, though it offers mail order, curbside pickup, and, for local customers, free hand delivery. “During the pandemic, what we can’t have is a lot of kids in their 20s who want to spend six hours a day in here,” Weissmiller said. “If we open for walk-ins, then we’re fighting with them on how long they can stay.”
Prairie Lights has maintained a regular virtual programming schedule, hosting up to three Zoom events weekly, featuring authors like John Grisham and Marilynne Robinson. While huge audiences don’t always mean great sales, some events have drawn customers: Poppyland: A Story About Family, Fine Bourbon, and Things That Last by Wright Thompson sold 600 copies during its Zoom event.
“I can’t imagine viewers are buying the books on Amazon,” said Weissmiller, who advocates that publishers schedule ticketed virtual events to better accommodate bookstores. “One of the reasons you buy the book at an event is because it’s a life experience. You meet the author and get the signature. Even if you buy a pre-signed book, it’s not the same thing.”
Prairie Lights saw revenue drop this past year, but expenses and payroll also decreased, and online sales jumped 200% over 2019. With parents homeschooling, sales of children’s books spiked in 2020, and sales of hardcover books remain strong. “Our hardback books are doing better than in pre-pandemic times,” Weissmiller noted. “The libraries are closed, and people want to read the new releases that are being reviewed.”
Little has changed regarding inventory: Prairie Lights orders just as many titles as before, only in smaller quantities. “What is most important to me,” Weissmiller said, “is that we have a lot of books. That’s what people like about us—that we order very widely: all the university presses, all the small press poetry, as well as the new stuff.”
Now that Prairie Lights’ staff is fully vaccinated, browsing is available by appointment while Weissmiller contemplates when and how to reopen in full. “People have been making appointments to come here from a long way away, because they know they can see books they would never see otherwise,” she said. “And even though we don’t have anyone staffing the children’s area, families make appointments to go down there, kids with their parents—they know it so well.”