Iowa City’s ‘pumping heart of literature’ sees some pre-pandemic normalcy

After more than a year, Iowa City is returning to the literary scene it was before February 2020. The city is seeing literary staples such as Prairie Lights and the Iowa City Public Library welcome back full capacity for browsing and events such as the Iowa City Book Festival.


Gabby Drees

A masked visitor picks out a book at the Iowa City Public Library on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.

Kate Perez, News Reporter

The Iowa City literary community isn’t ready to come back in full force.

As Iowa City records 50 to 60 cases of COVID-19 each day, literary hubs are trying to return to pre-pandemic norms while remaining cautious of the health and safety guidelines the city has in place.

Prairie Lights, a book store, cafe, and centerpiece of the Iowa City literature scene since 1978, closed its doors in March along with other staples of the community.

Co-owner of Prairie Lights Jan Weissmiller said she hopes to host more in-person events this spring.

“The conversations that occur daily in the bookstore are of such a high quality because of the attention given to great classic and contemporary literature,” Weismiller said. “It is a great privilege to be in a bookstore in this town where literature is, has been, and will be central.”

Prairie Lights currently allows in-person browsing at full capacity, she said. At the beginning of the pandemic, Prairie Lights supplied books for curbside pickup.

Iowa City was officially designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2008, becoming the third city in the world to receive the recognition.

Not all places where the Iowa City literary community convenes are moving toward complete normalcy.

The Haunted Bookshop, a bookstore on the east side of Iowa City, has suspended in-person browsing and is only taking online orders due to the rising COVID-19 numbers in Johnson County, co-owner Nialle Sylvan said.

“When we did allow browsing, it was limited. It was one group of people, no more than six at a time. Everybody had to wash their hands, everybody was masked,” Sylvan said. “Ideally, the numbers in Johnson County would start to fall, and we will be able to allow people back in.”

Sylvan said they are constantly brainstorming new ideas of how to welcome people safely to the bookshop by posting pictures of the products and books they process every day. It is also offers shipping, curbside pickup, and local home delivery.

Sylvan said the bookshop is not having as much business as it would if it were fully open, so they are having to overcompensate with ideas such as “Surprise Me!” bags.

These bags involve a customer giving Sylvan a budget and a list of topics they are interested in, and then Sylvan fills the bag with products that match the description.

“There’s a magic to browsing a bookstore where you’re looking for a book, you don’t find it, you turn around and you see something you’re like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ There’s serendipity,” Sylvan said.

Sylvan said they are deeply upset that they can not supply the Iowa City community with books from The Haunted Bookshop with typical in-person shopping.

“The circulation of books in this community is really important to people, and I have had to disappoint so many people who wanted to come in and browse — who wanted to come in and sell books,” Sylvan said.

John Kenyon, director of the Iowa City of Literature, said he is excited to see some events and businesses continue to move forward and have in-person conversations about literature once again.

The Iowa City Public Library is pretty close to the way it was at the beginning of COVID-19 and is excited to have in-person browsing, said Sam Helmick, community and access services coordinator.

Helmick said Iowa City residents can now enjoy the library’s space and use Wi-Fi and private meeting and study rooms.

“We’re probably the closest that I’ve seen to pre-pandemic library services since the start,” Helmick said.

The library is kicking off its family history month in October, Helmick said, which will include bilingual story times, the return of teaching classes, and book clubs. The library also has classes, in-person readings, and the Iowa City Book Festival in October, he said.

Kenyon said he looks forward to unscripted, unplanned interactions in the literary community.

“I’ve watched some lovely readings over the last year and a half that were on Zoom, but you really miss out on that opportunity to turn to someone sitting next to you and have a conversation about what you’ve just heard,” Kenyon said.

Sylvan said they are disappointed to not be a part of the “pumping heart of literature” in Iowa City right now.

“If Iowa City has a heart, that’s the university. Iowa City’s head [right now] is the literature of the city. We are a UNESCO city of literature,” Sylvan said. “I don’t know who we would be if this weren’t a town with a lot of bookshops.”