Happy 40th Birthday, Prairie Lights!

Congratulations to Prairie Lights bookstore, Iowa City, Iowa, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month. The Press-Citizen featured a detailed profile of "the Iowa literary institution" that is "a nationally respected and internationally known bookstore.... It's also a local institution in a UNESCO City of Literature, an unofficial home for literary types. Many students have bought books there, many locals have read the first chapter of a book sitting in the second-floor window sills, many University of Iowa Writers' Workshop students have written their stories in its cafe."

Prairie Lights founder and former owner Jim Harris "likes to sit at the tallest table" in the shop's café, a vantage point from which "he can see everyone, and say hello to anyone, who comes into the cafe inside the business he started 40 years ago," the Press-Citizen wrote.

"I never had any time to enjoy this space until I retired," he said. "I always considered the key to our success and growth was the community. The whole area, not just the workshop, embraced us fully. That's the reason we're still around."

Current co-owner Jan Weissmiller, who was taking writing and history classes at UI at the time, said she "found Prairie Lights as soon as it opened.... It felt vital then, even seven months after it had started."

Weissmiller "entered the store in December of 1978 to pick up a graduation gift that had been ordered for her. Harris knew she had graduated and offered her a job," the Press-Citizen noted.

"I said no at first because, I told him, I wouldn't make enough money. Eventually, he convinced me, but it didn't take that long," said Weissmiller. By the late 1990s, Harris was "out of energy" and asked Weissmiller if she wanted to buy Prairie Lights in the early 2000s. "Jan knew the store, I knew she would carry it on," Harris said. "She was just this infusion of energy." By 2007, she had agreed to buy a third of the business, along with poet Jane Mead, while Harris maintained one-third ownership until 2009.

Now, from his café table perspective, Harris told the Press-Citizen he would like to see the store he founded stay on a similar course. Asked what he'd like Prairie Lights to do the next 40 years, he replied "stay the same and have continued success."

Weissmiller added: "The city and the university are more focused on literature than they have ever been. The legacy here will require that there will always be a vital, good bookstore. I don't see any reason that it wouldn't be Prairie Lights for years to come."

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