One winter day a couple years ago, I was sitting with Paul Ingram at his desk near the front window of Prairie Lights Books.
We were going over the new forthcoming lists when a customer who had been browsing the history section nearby asked “Are you from Yale Press?” I said that I was. She said that we-Yale- would be publishing a new book by a friend of hers the following year, a biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.
I had not heard about the book yet, but it sounded fascinating, and her excitement was contagious. She had one concern- she thought the proposed title- My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century- was too wordy.
Knowing nothing else about the book, I had to concur. When the subject of a biography isn’t named, the title generally has an extra heavy burden, no matter how evocative the sentiment.
The customer, the bookseller and the rep all took a short break from the business at hand as we weighed the merits of this title, brainstormed other possibilities, and digressed in other ways into translation, Palestinian politics, and the challenges of representing a personal story when it’s also the chronicle of an age.
The book was indeed published the following season, and when my rep colleagues and I read it we were instantly in love, both with the poet and with Adina Hoffman, the author. She did many readings (including at Prairie Lights), it was widely and favorably reviewed, and the booksellers loved it. And now we have the paperback edition on the spring 2010 list so there’s a chance to talk about it again. (And, for what its worth, the title now seems absolutely perfect.)
I love that my introduction to what ended up one of my favorite books of the last few years came by way of a chance encounter with a brainy customer in Iowa City. This could have happened at any number of bookstores, but it seems somehow perfect that it happened at Prairie Lights.
This is one of those legendary independents who are known throughout the book industry, and it’s a gem. When I think about what they are doing right, a few things strike me:
1. Continuing the hands-on tradition established by store founder Jim Harris, current owner Jan Weissmiller is on the floor much of the day, fielding incoming curveballs like a frontline bookseller. An accomplished poet and voracious reader, I don’t know how she finds the time to do all the backofficey managerial stuff.
2. The staff is seasoned, deeply informed about books, and many have been with the store for years. You can’t buy an institutional book memory- it’s a precious resource. That these booksellers know the customers well enough to greet them by name, recall their last purchase, and seem generally happy speaks well of the way the store treats them.
3. Paul Ingram, resident fiction maitre and the most widely read devourer of contemporary fiction I know, is a handselling force of nature. Our appointments are mini-seminars. His enthusiasm for a title can be exhilarating, while his scathing dismissals can make me want to crawl under the table. I have never had an appointment with him that wasn’t interrupted several times by customers wanting his advice. (See an example of Paul at work here.)
4. The relationship with the Iowa Writers Workshop, and the intense roster of authors it brings to Iowa City and the store, is certainly an asset. But like all mutually beneficial relationships, it didn’t fall from the sky. The store works on it, nurtures it, and as a result often feels more like a literary salon than a business.
5. The book selection: top notch. The showcase subject areas- poetry, literature, fiction, criticism, and classics- are tended with great attention. And they don’t skimp on serious nonfiction areas they care about- history, biography, regional, gender studies, art and architecture.
Prairie Lights has become an icon of midwest bookselling, but you might be surprised to know there are other great booksellers in Iowa City.
Just around the corner from the store, in the lower level of Iowa Book & Supply, veteran bookseller Matt Lage presides over a broad but quirky inventory. Matt is another speed reader with a huge and impeccable literary appetite. The store is not to be missed for his superb selection of literary remainders. Nothing cookie-cutter here.
And despite the challenges of floods, dips in textbook sales, and all the assorted bottom line pressures faced by college bookstores, Doug Ward at the University of Iowa Bookstore meets with reps, pores through catalogs, and looks for reasons to say yes rather than no.
One of my moments of greatest satisfaction so far this season was Doug’s response to the forthcoming Harvard title Saturday is for Funerals, a sweet and heroic little book about how science and good story-telling is turning the tide on HIV in Botswana. An impulse book with a mission, he took a chance.
It’s fun to see all three of these stores. They’re competitive (“what did Paul take?” Matt will sometimes ask) but they also cooperate. In other places, it’s hard to imagine three neighboring competing retailers sharing a casual dinner and exchanging gossip. Not here.
I really enjoy the cities in my territory- Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Buffalo- but I have a soft spot for the college towns. Even these places have seen their share of bookstore attrition over the last decade. When Shaman Drum broke many hearts by closing last year, Ann Arbor became a less interesting place overnight.
Still, the Boulders, Bloomingtons, and Eugenes of the country give me hope. Call me an elitist, but if the inane worship of nonsense that seems to be taking over the public square finally drives out serious discourse completely, the last bastion of literary culture might still be found in the bookstores of the college town.
And with its film festivals, cheap international food, and good coffee, its not a bad place to imagine living.