Prairie Lights Bookstore

Prairie Lights Bookstore

15 South Dubuque Street, Iowa City Iowa

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.


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.


Abraham Verghese reading, 2009

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


Ana Merino, Horacio Castellanos Moya and Luis Muñoz read at Prairie Lights Bookstore

As part of the Iowa City Book Festival, Ana Merino, Horacio Castellanos Moya and Luis Muñoz, faculty in the University of Iowa MFA in Spanish Creative Writing program, read from their work in Spanish. Printed English translations were also available for purchase. The reading was followed by tapas from Devotay, served in the Prairie Lights Café.


“Ana Merino, Horacio Castellanos Moya and Luis Muñoz Reading, Iowa City Book Festival at Prairie Lights, October 13, 2013.” The University of Iowa Libraries, 2013, digital.lib.uiowa.edu/islandora/object/ui:vwu_3436.


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

Poets Cathy Park Hong and Joyelle McSweeney read from their newest collections on May 3, 2012. 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.



Horacio Castellanos Moya reading, 2010 Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor

Horacio Castellanos Moya presented the annual Paul Engle Memorial Reading on October 12, 2010. Moya was the 2010 Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professor. The Engle reading honors the memory of visionary Iowa poet Paul Engle, who led the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to prominence and co-founded the IWP.

The Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorships Program was established in 1978-79 based on a bequest from the late Ida Beam of Vinton, Iowa, who willed her family farm to the UI Foundation. The proceeds from the farm’s sale enabled the UI to establish a fund that brings top scholars in a variety of fields to the university for lectures and discussions.

“Horacio Castellanos Moya Reading, Paul Engle Memorial Reading, October 12, 2010.” The University of Iowa Libraries, 2010, digital.lib.uiowa.edu/islandora/object/ui:vwu_2570.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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

This recording took place at Prairie Lights Bookstore in downtown Iowa City on April 25, 2002.





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.


Lan Samantha Chang, James Alan McPherson, Chris Offutt, Marvin Bell, Robert Dana Fifteenth Anniversary reading

In this celebration of fifteen years of Live From Prairie Lights a line-up of prominent writers who have read from their work on “Live from Prairie Lights” including UI Writers’ Workshop alumna Mary Swander; Jane Hamilton; Dorothy Allison; Lan Samantha Chang, director of the Writers’ Workshop; Karen Joy Fowler; Colson Whitehead; Writers’ Workshop faculty members James Alan McPherson, James Galvin, Chris Offutt and Marvin Bell; Iowa Poet Laureate Robert Dana; David Hamilton, editor of the Iowa Review; Nonfiction Writing Program faculty member Patricia Foster; and Christopher Merrill, director of the UI International Writing Program will offer remarks or read selections to express their response to the “Live From Prairie Lights” 15th Anniversary. In addition, the audience was treated to clips from other authors who have visited the program throughout the years.

University of Iowa Libraries, Virtual Writing University archive


Luis Humberto Crosthwaite and Horacio Castellanos Moya, reading, Live From Prairie Lights

Luis Humberto Crosthwaite and Horacio Castellanos Moya read from their work in a special event held in conjunction with the University of Iowa Department of Spanish and Portuguese on September 7, 2011.

“Luis Humberto Crosthwaite and Horacio Castellanos Moya, Reading, Live From Prairie Lights, September 7, 2011.” The University of Iowa Libraries, 2011, digital.lib.uiowa.edu/islandora/object/ui:vwu_3090.


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.