I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1990 to 1991. I spent so much time (and money) at Prairie Lights that even now, much of what is on the shelves in my study comes from that period.
And so many volumes I was guided to by the incredible and long-tenured staff who would plop a book into my hands and say, “You must read this.” Or they would guide me to a specific author reading.
Jim Harris, who owned it then, and also Jan Weissmiller and Paul Ingram and so many others, were our professors in a way, shaping our sensibilities, but most important, treating us as serious writers, people with great potential even though, at that stage, we did not have that kind of faith in ourselves. WHat we had was hope and dreams and a love of literature and deep doubts as to whether anything would come of it all.
Prairie Lights was a relative bookstore newbie when I was there, being only about twelve years old. […] I have had the great pleasure of visiting Prairie Lights annually or just about. It is larger, grander now. What is new is its lively online presence and a wonderful coffee house on the second floor–a space, Jan said she had learned recently, where the local literary society met throughout the 1930s, pulling in such glorious names as Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Sherwood Anderson, and E.E. Cummings, among others.
What has not changed is its mysterious core–a hush, a sense of reverence for the written word. The reading series, still named Live from Prairie Lights and taking place four or five nights a week, is always packed–anywhere from forty to fifty people and often more than a hundred. There is no audience quite like an Iowa City audience. Name an author, and he or she will likely have rea d there: Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem, Annie Proulx, J.M. Coetzee, Kathryn Stockett, and poets Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, Galway Kinnell, and man, many more. To my great glee, USA Today named Prairie Lights a “destination bookstore” in 2008[…].
For Iowa City’s smallish community of some 70,000, Prairie Lights has an extraordinary and large presence and is thoroughly integrated into its community. This collaborative approach started with Jim Harris’s farsightedness when he bought the store in 1978, and it’s been a tradition Jan has continued since she and Jane Mead, a Workshop graduate with three published books of poetry, bought the store from Jim in 2008. Not only is Prairie Lights tied in to the Writers’ Workshop, but, I am pleased to see, the store is also actively involved with the medical school there[…].
I always dreamed of one day reading at Prairie Lights, and when that moment eventually came with the success of my first book My Own Country, I choked up–it was hugely significant to me to be reading there, in that space. It was an affirmation that was personal and private, yet one that I think every writer with an adopted store would understand. I read again with my recent novel, Cutting for Stone.
[…]Though I may live far away, whenever I need to imagine a place of peace, a place far from the mundane concerns of everyday life, a place where such concerns are transcended and reshaped into art, I picture myself pushing open the front door, seeing Jan’s smile, hearing Paul hail me from the back…is this heaven? No, it’s Prairie Lights.