Prairie Lights Bookstore continues to flourish 45 years after opening in Iowa City

As a UNESCO City of Literature, Iowa City’s independent bookstore Prairie Lights thrives in the 20th century with the help of owner Jan Weissmiller’s dedication to the bookstore and love for books.


Grace Smith

First-year University of Iowa student Meredith Onions looks through a book at Prairie Lights Book and Cafe is seen in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2022.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter

Take a step into Iowa City’s independent bookstore Prairie Lights Books & Cafe, and one will be overtaken by a comforting sense of homeliness between the stretching walls and winding tables of books.

Prairie Lights opened in 1978 in a cramped 1000-square-foot storefront west of its current location on South Dubuque Street.  Jan Weissmiller is the current owner and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1978.

Weissmiller was immersed in creative writing and poetry classes as a double major in history and English. She often found her way to Prairie Light’s poetry section to take in the aura of older graduate students and intriguing poems.

Original owner Jim Harris got to know her after she started spending most of her time in the store, and Harris eventually asked her if she wanted to work there. As a young college student, she was saving up for graduate school by waitressing, a job that she knew would make her more money. Harris felt that if she gave it a try, making less money wouldn’t matter.

“That’s the thing about bookstores: They’re really fun,” Weissmiller said. “It’s not like there isn’t work, but it’s around books and people, and something new happens every day. Somebody comes in, and you have some amazing conversation about a book. I was really very quickly addicted to it.”

As time moved forward and Weissmiller spent  more time working in the bookstore, Harris approached her in 2005 and asked if she wanted to buy Prairie Lights. She declined his offer knowing it would be too much for her.

Her close friend and fellow poet Jane Mead, who she knew from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, kept a small house in Iowa City after moving back home to Napa, California. Mead asked Weissmiller and Harris to visit while she was out west, and they both took her up on her offers.

When Weissmiller was reading poetry with Mead during a trip in 2007, Harris called and asked them if they would like to buy the bookstore — this time together.

They kicked this idea around for the remainder of their trip and decided they could afford it if they were partners and split an equal share. Over the course of the following year, they went through a transition period where all three owned a stake in Prairie Lights. But by the end of 2008, the two women were on their own.

“Jane and I were good friends, and we had the same values, so we did not have a hard time running the business together,” Weissmiller said.

While they both co-owned the bookstore, Weissmiller spent the most time inside Prairie Lights running their business in the public eye. However, they took over the formerly run Java House on the second floor for a café of their own. Of course, they always had eachother to bounce ideas off of.

On Sept. 8, 2019, Mead died of cancer, leaving Weismiller alone to run Prairie Lights and continue their dedication for the bookstore. Tucked in the quiet nook on the second floor between the staircase and the café are two framed poems by Mead: “I Wonder If I Will Miss The Most” and “Experience As Visitation.” In this place, Mead’s legacy as a poet carries on.

“I like having these here because people do read them,” Weissmiller said. “Often, someone will come downstairs and look for her poems because they’ve read these on the wall.”

It’s hard for Weissmiller to decipher how her role in her job has changed since Mead’s passing because the COVID-19 pandemic started quickly afterward. Only five months later, Prairie Lights closed to all in-person activity for 14 months, only reopening in May  2021.

Bookstores have seen their share of challenges post-pandemic as well as within the 21st century.

Weissmiller said Prairie Light’s online sales have skyrocketed since the pandemic, with many customers still choosing online orders rather than in-person shopping. To be a successful independent bookstore owner, Weismiller believes someone must develop strong relationships with the community.

“We do it through our reading series because the reading series is not just famous people. We also have local authors, and luckily, we have really good local authors through the workshop,” Weissmiller said. “Also just having really strong community relations and with other businesses downtown and with all the people that we buy things from and with each other.”

Iowa City is a designated UNESCO City of Literature based on its writing programs, libraries, bookstores, and history and heritage of literature. Its Creative Cities Network recognizes cities worldwide with exemplary programming in seven different areas, one of which is  literature.

John Kenyon, executive director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, said the city couldn’t be a City of Literature without having a bookstore like Prairie Lights.

“Prairie Lights is the kind of place where you can find stories, poetry, essays, nonfiction, books, magazines, journals — whatever you need to fill your soul, you can find there,” Kenyon said.

A pivotal pillar both Prairie Lights and Weissmiller stand on is keeping the bookstore filled with books. She said many stores in other cities are predominantly selling 30 to 40 percent “sidelines,” which are items like socks and stuffed animals. Weissmiller said Prairie Lights is lucky to live in a city of literature because there are many writers in town with works to fill up the shelves.

“So as long as it’s possible, I want to keep very Prairie Lights books, mostly books — and that means lots of books because we have so much space,” Weismiller said.

There are many reasons why bookstores will always be around, Weismiller said. She said it is a different experience to go online than it is to come into the store and see all the things that a customer might not have known existed.

Kenyon’s reasoning is more philosophical.

“The written word and books and literature — it’s such an important part of us telling each other about who we are, what we’ve done, what we’re capable of doing,” Kenyon said.

Talking to people about books and coming into Prairie Lights is Weissmiller’s favorite part of the job. Every day is a new day that is already in motion when she enters the bookstore every morning at 11 a.m. She explained it as “knowing you’re going to a movie you really want to see.”

“The lights are going to come on and the phone is going to ring and somebody’s going to walk in the door,” Weissmiller said. “You don’t know what it is, but you’re excited you know that it’s going to be interesting, whatever it is.

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