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Prairie Lights Bookstore

Prairie Lights Bookstore

ADDRESS
15 South Dubuque Street, Iowa City Iowa
PLACE TYPE
Bookstores

Prairie Lights is an intimate local bookstore in Iowa City that includes three and a half floors, and a coffee house located in the same space that the local literary society met throughout the 1930’s, hosting writers Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, e e cummings and others. Gertrude Stein and friend Alice B. Toklas were scheduled for a reading but were sleeted in at Waukesha airport — or so the story goes. Prairie Lights is one of the centers of the literary community in town.

Stories
Place

Abraham Verghese in Prairie Lights Bookstore

Abraham Verghese talks about Prairie Lights bookstore and his time in Iowa City:

 

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.

Verghese, Abraham. “Prairie Lights, Iowa City, Iowa.” My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read and Shop. Ronald Rice, ed. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc.: 2012 (pp. 332-335). Print.


Audio

Abraham Verghese reading, 2009

Abraham Verghese reads at Prairie Lights Bookstore, The University of Iowa, March 4, 2009


Audio

Cathy Park Hong and Joyelle McSweeney reading, Live from Prairie Lights

Poets Cathy Park Hong and Joyelle McSweeney read from their newest collections. Cathy Park Hong reads from Engine Empire, a trilogy of lyric and narrative poems —three distinct yet interconnected sequences— that explore the collective consciousness of fictionalized boomtowns in order to explore the mythology of prosperity. Cathy Park Hong is the author of Translating Mo’um, winner of the Pushcart Prize, and Dance Dance Revolution, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize. She lives in New York and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.


Place

James Tate on Iowa City and Prairie Lights Bookstore

In an interview with Charles Simic in the Paris Review, Tate discusses how he approached poetry in his workshop days.

“I can remember standing in this great bookstore in Iowa City one day and I pulled a book of Elizabeth Bishop’s off the shelf. I think it was North and South. I stood there reading and reading and it just didn’t click. Nothing hit me. It took me quite a few years before I fell in love with her.” He calls this moment “a credit to his shame.”

Simic, Charles. “James Tate, The Art of Poetry No. 92.” The Paris Review, 12 June 2017, www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5636/james-tate-the-art-of-poetry-no-92-james-tate.


Audio

John D’Agata reading, Live from Prairie Lights, February 22, 2012

John D’Agata and Jim Fingal read from their new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, which focuses on the question of how negotiable a fact in nonfiction actually is. What emerges is a brilliant and eye-opening meditation on the relationship between truth and accuracy and a penetrating conversation about whether it is appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other.


Audio

John D’Agata, James Galvin, Elizabeth McCracken and David Hamilton reading

John D’Agata, a faculty member in the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, introduced The Lost Origins of the Essay. The book is a companion to D’Agata’s The Next American Essay, which was published in 2002. D’Agata is joined by Iowa Writers’ Workshop poet James Galvin, longtime Iowa Review editor David Hamilton, and Writers’ Workshop visiting faculty member Elizabeth McCracken to sample the content of this wide-ranging anthology of short nonfiction, which takes the reader from ancient Mesopotamia to classical Greece and Rome, from fifth-century Japan to 19th-century France, to modern Brazil, Germany, Barbados, and beyond.


Audio

John Freeman and Marilynne Robinson reading, 2013

John Freeman, in conversation with Marilynne Robinson, talking about his new book, How to Read a Novelist, on Live from Prairie Lights, October 16, 2013. As a critic for more than two hundred newspapers worldwide, the onetime president of the National Book Critics Circle, and editor of Granta, Freeman has reviewed thousands of books and interviewed scores of writers. In How to Read a Novelist, which pulls together his very best profiles of the very best novelists of our time, he shares with us what he’s learned. Freeman has written about books for more than two hundred publications worldwide, including The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, La Repubblica, and La Vanguardia. His first book was The Tyranny of E-mail. His poetry has been published in The New Yorker ZYZZYVA, and The Paris Review. He lives in New York City.

The University of Iowa Libraries


Audio

Jorie Graham reading, Live From Prairie Lights, April 4, 2002

Jorie Graham reads from her collection Never: Poems.

 


Audio

Joyelle McSweeney and Cathy Park Hong reading, Live From Prairie Lights

Joyelle McSweeney reads from her collection of poems The Red Bird. Cathy Park Hong reads from her first book Translating Mo’um.


Place

Juan Felipe Herrera reads at Prairie Lights Bookstore

The International Writing Program sponsored the readings of Finnish author Arto Kytohonka and UI Writers’ Workshop poet Juan Felipe Herrera at 7 p.m. in Prairie Lights Books on November 3rd, 1989.

In Brief: Sunday.The Daily Iowan, 3 Nov 1989, p. 2A.


Audio

Marilynne Robinson Reading, 2004

Marilynne Robinson, professor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and author of the revered novel Housekeeping, reads from her new novel Gilead on Live from Prairie Lights at Prairie Lights Bookstore in downtown Iowa City.


Audio and Video

Marilynne Robinson reading, 2008

University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty member Marilynne Robinson reads from “Home” the companion to her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gilead.” She is introduced by Derek Willard. “Home” which is a finalist for the National Book Award, portrays other characters in the Iowa town of Gilead. Bob Thompson wrote in the Washington Post, “Set in precisely the same time and locale as ‘Gilead,’ it revisits characters the author found herself unwilling to give up. Yet it is not a sequel. With different people’s stories moved to center stage, ‘Home’ manages to be both intertwined with its predecessor and a work that stands alone.” “Gilead” also won the Book Critics’ Circle Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her first novel, “Housekeeping” was a Pulitzer finalist two decades ago, when it won the PEN/Hemingway Award. In the intervening years she wrote two nonfiction books, “Mother Country” and “The Death of Adam.”

The University of Iowa Libraries


Audio

Marvin Bell reading, Live From Prairie Lights, Feb. 22, 2006

Marvin Bell, an emeritus faculty member of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Iowa’s first Poet Laureate, reads his work. Bell says of his latest work

Some of these poems were written in the mornings at the First Avenue Java House and others at home very late at night. I recently founded the School of Prophetic Existentialism. It was an accident.


Audio

Marvin Bell reading, Live From Prairie Lights, Oct. 17, 2007

Marvin Bell, emeritus professor of Poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Iowa’s first Poet Laureate, reads from his latest collection, Mars Being Red. Marvin Bell has been a leader in the Poets Against the War movement and his new book is both his most personal and his most political.


Audio

Marvin Bell, Rowena Torrevillas, James Galvin, Mark Levine, and Jorie Graham read the work of IWP participants, including Tomaž Salamun

Poets Marvin Bell, Rowena Torrevillas, James Galvin, Mark Levine, and Jorie Graham read the work of IWP participants whose work has been published in previous issues of the Iowa Review.

Works Read: Marvin Bell reads the following poems: “It Happened There Was a Man Who Wanted to Be a Hunter” by Ai Qing. “Give Indonesia Back to Me” by Taufiq Ismail. “The Exercise” by Fernando Arbelaez.

Rowena Torrevillas reads the poem “Indian Summer” by Nicolae Breban.

James Galvin reads an excerpt from the short story “Tort’s Bitter Marriage” by Amos Tutuola.

Mark Levine reads the following poems: “Barbaric Poem” by Guillermo Sánchez. “Wound and Knife” by György Somlyó. “The Biographer” by Ágnes Gergely. “Last Passengers” by Sunil Gangopadhyay.

Jorie Graham reads the following poems: “To Have a Friend” by Tomaž Salamun, trans. by Robert Hass. “Souvenir of the Ancient World” by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, trans. by Mark Strand. “A Pity, We Were Such a Good Invention;” “We Did It;” “Rain on a Battlefield;” “Out of Three or Four in a Room” by Yehuda Amichai. “Foreign Domestic;” “A Lovely Finish” by Elizabeth Bishop.

David Hamilton reads “Understanding Poetry” by Stuart Friebert.