2 Minutes on Bookstores, with Jim Harris

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Jim Harris (BA ’69) Founder Emeritus Prairie Lights, Iowa City
Jim Harris (BA ’69) is the founder emeritus of Prairie Lights, Iowa City. Photo by Ben Smith/Iowa Journalist

Iowa City is one of the country’s leading literary locations, and Prairie Lights has had no fewer than nine Nobel Laureates in Literature cross its threshold. Jim Harris (BA '69), the founder of the independent bookstore, has been an innovator in the art of selling books for more than 30 years. 

In an interview, Harris discusses the changes of bookstore landscapes as seen from the 1970s to the present:

In my twenties, I spent hours and hours in bookstores and realized it was what I wanted to do. So, in 1978, I had an idea to open a bookshop, and that idea needed a name.

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I wanted to pair prairie with a word evoking images of where we live. “Prairie Lights” was a lyric in a Canadian folk song that I really liked, and of course, City Lights was an iconic store.

 

It started simple, but was filled with good books. Its growth came from Iowa City’s sophisticated reading culture. All independent bookstores started somewhere, and they all started small.

Prairie Lights, Iowa City

In the ’70s, the two top bookstore chains, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, quickly expanded across the country with 3,000-square-feet stores in malls and roughly 50,000 to 60,000 titles in stock.

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On the other side, small-town bookstores were carving their own paths in their communities. The Tattered Cover in Denver, Colorado, one of the country’s largest independent bookstores, became the aesthetic dream of all stores. The store’s cozy chairs launched a trend that soon every bookstore would follow.

Prairie Lights, Iowa City

 

And for a while, the independents were dominant. Everyone wanted a piece of their own city’s culture. Prairie Lights followed suit. After just five years, the tiny shop outgrew its confining 1,000-square-foot space at 102 S. Linn Street and entered into the golden age of independent bookstores in current location at 15 S. Dubuque Street encompassing 11,000 square feet with 100,000 titles.

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As we enter the 21st century, independent bookstores are no longer the primary source for book purchases. Barnes & Noble exploded across America. Amazon’s online store offers discounted prices small business simply cannot offer. Indie stores’ future is foreseeable, but tough.

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But what can bookstores do that Amazon can’t? Human interactions such as author events, Q&A’s, and public readings are what keeps these stores going. They offer what can’t be downloaded: people.

Prairie Lights, Iowa City

 

Prairie Lights retains its simple charms with its downtown Iowa City location and knowledgeable, hard-working staff. With its loyal customers and rich literary tradition, Prairie Lights will continue to prosper.