Prairie Lights Bookstore

FullSizeRender (4)“You’re going to love Prairie Lights,” I told Emily as we drove south on Highway 151. “It’s my favorite store in Iowa City.”

She nodded, humoring me. Behind us, Betsy and Matt dozed to their individual soundtracks, oblivious to my running commentary. But she was trapped in the shotgun seat, keeping the driver alert.

“Hey, there’s Monticello.” I pointed out her window. “This highway used to run right through it. There was a purple house on the edge of town. Bright purple with a checkerboard garage. The owner freshened up the paint every year or two.”

She chuckled. “How do you remember this stuff?”

How can I forget?

Thirty years ago I left my home outside Madison, Wisconsin, and moved into the freshman dorms at the University of Iowa. I’d watched my sisters and most of my classmates go off to UW, and decided not to follow the crowd. Who rebels and runs to Iowa? I do.

FullSizeRender (6)I arrived on campus book-smart and woefully ignorant. When I asked my roommates who Hayden Fry was, they hooted with laughter. “I’ll bet she’s never heard of Dan Gable, either,” they chortled.

They were right.

The only girl on my dorm floor who knew less than I did was from New York City. One Saturday morning she sat in the hall, telephone cord stretched to its limit, talking at the top of her lungs to someone back home. “Get this. I went out last night, and everyone was talking about detassling corn. That’s what these people do in the summer. I didn’t know corn had a tassle.”

At least I knew that.

That's so Iowa!
That’s so Iowa!

We passed the prison at Anamosa and turned onto Highway 1. “Not far now,” I said, more to myself than to her. “Every summer that farm had a petunia garden in the shape of the flag. Red, white and purple.”

She laughed. “Did you ever hear anything so Iowa?”

The fall semester at Iowa is built around football, so my lack of interest in Hayden Fry (legendary Hawkeye football coach) dampened my social life considerably. Not that I cared. Football Saturdays let me explore my new city in peace, to look for the places that would make it feel like home.

Prairie Lights bookstore was one of the first places I found. Located downtown on Dubuque Street, it intrigued and intimidated me with its racks of serious books by authors I didn’t know.  I felt most at home in the children’s section, where my fellow patrons didn’t look so intellectual, so I hung out with Alcott and Stephenson until I worked up the courage to tackle the unknown. It was worth the effort, I reasoned, because the whole place smelled right.

Prairie Lights Bookstore“We’re here!” I could barely contain my excitement. “Wake up, kids. Parking’s free today, so I’ll pull up close—whoops!” I looked over my shoulder at the store we’d just passed. “Hold on, everyone. I’ll just go around the block.”

We parked in front of Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery, a block from the bookstore, and walked….

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….past two trees wearing sweaters….

IMG_1749….past a sock store (Wool socks, only fifteen dollars!)….

FullSizeRender (4)….to the friendly front door of Prairie Lights.

The first thing I noticed when we stepped inside was the familiar scent of books and intellect, and the unfamiliar aroma of coffee. The latter was explained by the chalk-board sign near the front desk:

Prairie Lights Café
My Cider Sense is tingling

I climbed the stairs to the coffee shop, housed in the same room where Robert Frost, Carl Sandberg and Langston Hughes met to discuss books in the 1930’s. What a shame this charming space didn’t exist back then. I pictured myself writing my next novel at a repurposed wooden table overlooking the street. Bliss. (Later, I found a sign in the Textbooks section that made perfect sense: “Textbooks must be paid for before taking them to the café.” College students are notoriously cheap.)

The café wasn’t the only sign of change at my favorite Iowa bookstore. The stock had lightened up slightly, too. Though deep intellectual tomes were still available, my kids found more accessible titles. Puppies Making Faces, anyone? How about Underwater Dogs?

In the end, only Betsy bought a book: The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold. I waited by the door as she paid, and listened to two old-timers greet each other. “Hello, Fred. Long time no see.”

“Well, hi, George. It’s been a few years.”

In Iowa, even the bookstores have that small-town flavor.

Visit Prairie Lights at, or at 15 South Dubuque St. • Iowa City, IA 52240 • 319-337-2681 • 800-295-BOOK


    • That was a story from the trip home, Diane. It was complicated by the fact that we brought Ethel, Lee and Leah’s dog, home with us. We’re keeping her while they spend three months in Arizona. We hoped that Ethel and Hobbes would instantly love each other, but it was not to be. Ethel is a crotchety old lady who doesn’t want to be bothered by our young whippersnapper puppy. They’re working it out, but it hasn’t been pretty. Or quiet.

  1. I love that familiar bookstore around the corner smell. Thanks for the lovely post, Jane. “Who rebels and runs to Iowa? I do.” *priceless*

  2. I never knew I wanted to spend time in Iowa! I love articles that compel me to travel. The smell of the bookstore, the small town feel and sipping a warm cup of Joe in a classical setting all lead me to long for a place I’ve never been…Iowa. This was a fun read. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Love this! I’ve been to IC lately a couple of times and love walking those streets and the independent shops!

    • If we’d had more time (and if we weren’t taking Lee and Leah’s dog home with us), I’d have stopped at your independent shop, Brenda. I want my kids to see Amana at some point, and the Christmas pictures you’ve been posting on FB are a big incentive! But it was not to be. This time.

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