Prairie Lights Paul Ingram and Jan Weissmiller – “A landmark inside of a landmark”
Jim Harris founded Prairie Lights–a now iconic Iowa City bookstore–in 1978. Originally Harris went to journalism school, then dropped out to become a lawyer. He was drafted and later pursued a PhD in Geoscience on the G.I. bill. It wasn’t until three years later that he decided to open a bookstore.
Between the Time’s Club coffee shop on the third floor and a lower level devoted to children’s books, the main floor is stocked with every genre of books imaginable. Walking in, books from Neil Gaiman’s newest release to a scientific study on crows grabbed our attention. The occasional reading chair and quiet atmosphere contribute to a comfortable, homey air.
We talked to Jan Weissmiller, who bought Prairie Lights when Harris retired in 2008. The shop started out in a small storefront on Linn Street, but in 1983 it was moved to Dubuque Street, where it is today.
If the building’s hordes of books aren’t reason enough to go see it, its history is. In the 1930s, the building’s coffee shop was visited by such famous writers as Robert Frost and e.e. cummings. You can stop by and sip coffee in the same place that a now-famous poet might have sat 80 years ago.
Paul Ingram, the store’s book buyer, is a landmark inside of a landmark. In the words of a passing customer, “Paul knows everything.”
He grew up in Washington D.C. where his father worked for the government.
“Everyone made the same amount of money, you could tell because all the houses looked the same,” he said, making the shape of a house with his arms. “I went to the University of Virginia for two years, didn’t like it, dropped out.”
The best place in the world, according to Paul, is the Library of Congress. His head tilts back and his arms wave around when he talks about the “endless rows of books.” Paul worked as a messenger between the sections of the library–one morning run and one afternoon run. The time in between, he said, he spent “hiding, reading, absorbing.” He continued to read anything he could get his hands on while finishing his degree in speech and hearing science, “if you can believe it,” he said. During his college years, he was involved in radical leftist politics. Much like Jim Harris, Paul Ingram eventually returned to his love of books, taking a job at Iowa Book and Supply in 1972 until he moved to Prairie Lights.
Paul has never taken more than a week and a half off of work in his life. Eventually, Paul said, he’ll retire. When we asked him if he ever tires of his job he said, “everything gets old,” paused and continued with, “but I still love my job.” Someday he’d like to write a novel or a memoir of his own, but not before he retires ”Ó he needs some time to relax.
For the moment, though, he seems to be familiar with every book in Prairie Lights and made several recommendations to us both. Neither of us could leave without making a purchase after talking to him.
A book Paul recommended
For anyone interested in exploring Iowa City’s literary culture, Prairie Lights is an excellent place to start. Overall, despite the difficulties it might cause broke and book-loving college kids, Prairie Lights is a great place to buy books, or just to hang out and have coffee.
If you’re interested, you can read more about it on the store’s website.
15 South Dubuque St. Iowa City, IA 52240
Copyright © 2013 Hannah Adamson, Hayley Driscoll, Scott Quinby and Blake Robinson
Adamson, Hannah; Driscoll, Hayley; Quinby, Scott; and Robinson, Blake, "Prairie Lights Paul Ingram and Jan Weissmiller – “A landmark inside of a landmark”" (2013). Iowa Narratives Project. 4.