Afloat Upon a Sea of Books

This is a story about the story of books in Iowa City, told through the words of the town’s mesh of buyers and sellers and enjoyers, young and old and odd. It is a long story, but in no way exhaustive, surely missing many angles and colors of this City of Literature’s romance with literature, failing completely to examine certain said must-sees — the Writers’ Workshop, Prairie Lights, other cross-referenced bookpeople who could shed hours of knowledge in a breath. It’s merely the summary on the jacket, filled with quotes from esteemed appraisers.

The first chapter belongs to Nialle Sylvan.

Nially SylvanIt could start like this:

Nialle Sylvan, of 203 N. Linn Street, was proud to say that she was perfectly strange, thank you very much. She was the first person you’d expect to be involved in things strange and mysterious, because she always stood by such nonsense.

Mrs. Sylvan was the owner of a store called The Haunted Bookshop, which just moved. She was a tall, skinny woman hugged by a turtleneck, and peered behind very circular glasses. She had a cat who was a special kitty of God and in her opinion there was no finer kitty anywhere.

Or this:

Nerdy, spry Nialle Sylvan perched behind her desk, bearing a box of books in which a novel and cookbook lay crossed. A beige sweater, overlong, was filled warmly by the musky hardcover air. She held a volume aloft and intoned:

— A man almost killed me with a bag of tenpenny nails.

But this particular story, it begins like this:

“Everything that happens here is a bizarre coincidence. I should stipulate that at the beginning. Just be prepared.”

It’s day one of The Haunted Bookshop’s reopening and Nialle couldn’t be more pleased. These places are perpetual holders of odds and ends, but the new location (Northside Book Market’s old) is filled with a drafty brightness that illuminates and settles the mesh of competing residents, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs residing an aisle away from six copies of Sons and Lovers and an Oscar Wilde action figure spying on leftover baskets and packing material.

I wander in a stranger, but before long Nialle is halfway through her bookseller origin story. It dizzingly shifts from law school potential to Da Vinci to a gay Nigerian, a near death experience in Paris, a ghost named Claire, happenchance inheritance, and finally wild success (relative to this business, of course).

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

Key excerpts:

1. Regarding Paris and fate.

“I was so exhausted when I finally got to Paris I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember thinking, oh my god, Notre Dame is white — it was the year they started cleaning it but it still looked like the Victor Hugo novel in my head. Everything looks like a book in my head, pretty much. So I head toward the left bank where the youth hostels might be, delirious, not watching what I’m doing, man comes around a corner on a bicycle. About 35 miles an hour. And he has a bag of tenpenny nails in his hand. The bag is here, my face is here, a door is here – I dive.”

Her hands follow her memory; after a potentially painful setup (head versus nails), a quick jerk to signal a dive. And where to?

“Into Shakespeare & Company. The man jumps off the bicycle. And I’m now going to demonstrate exactly what his man said with his precise inflections. How’s your French?”


“That’s okay, because what he said was,” — Nialle now speaks like a frog on testosterone — “‘you want to help me build a bookshelf?’ Exactly like that — because this guy is George Whitman, owner of Shakespeare & Company.”

A pretty big deal in the bookselling world. Whitman is a legend, a Massachusetts native who successfully inherited Paris’ literary oasis.

Back to Nialle:

“I must have had bibliophile written on my forehead or something, so George gets off the bicycle helps me up and I go help him build a book shelf. I end up sleeping by the bookshelves at night, hanging out in the bookstore during the day, and George realizes I’m spending more time in his shop than any of the cute Parisian guys. So he suggests to me, and again I’m going to quote exactly, ‘Nialle, go back to the States, find a nice bookstore, and settle down.’ And I’m like, George that’s a great idea — but how would you even start?”

2. How she starts, or, a potential encounter with a ghost named Claire.

[To catch up: Nialle is back in the United States, working at The Haunted Bookshop but not yet the owner. She’s been offered the chance to buy it, fulfilling George’s implanted dream. The conflict: She doesn’t have the money.]

“This is where the ghost comes in. People are always asking me if the shop is haunted — Okay, the shop is not haunted in any sort of conventional sense, there’s no blood dripping down the walls, we do not see visions, we do not have cold spots… I had taken it entirely with a grain of salt.”


“One night it gets late. I come back to the bookshop after having left pretty late because I realized I didn’t turn off the coffee pot. I’m living in Cedar Rapids at the time, and it’s ridiculous o’ clock in the morning, which is sometime between two and six. I decide I’m going to cash out in the arts books room, I find a blanket in the car…

“I wake up smelling something that I shouldn’t have been able to smell in that building — it’s supposed to smell like old books, right? – I’m smelling what my great grandfather used to make for breakfast when I was a little kid. Twenty years since I smelled this. You know how, at stupid o’ clock in the morning, you are maybe a little less hardline skeptical? So I wake up and I’m like, wow, this is weird, is this the ghost then? This Claire chick? And because it’s stupid o’ clock in the morning — and if I’m being honest with myself about my agnosticism — I’m like, okay, so Claire, if you’re a real ghost… and I don’t know how this ghost thing works… but I like it here and I think we make a good team. So if you could swing anything to help me out with this… like, how do you even phrase this question, right? Consulting the paranormal on business advice. What am I even doing?”

And then.

“Two days later I get a letter in the mail from my grandmother’s estate. She passed away five years before, but they had trouble finding my uncle Snake who’s a Hell’s Angel. That’s a whole other story there. One thing leads to another leads to another, and the amount of money available to me as a result… guess how much?”

I’m thinking what would make a good story. The exact amount?

“Matched it down the penny. As in blah blah blah 61 cents. The paraded amount to purchase The Haunted Bookshop on September 9th, 2004. So I did.”

Animated and emphatic, Nialle relays her personal tale like a book meant to be read aloud. But as she explains, Iowa City’s literary scene is an ongoing conversation — extending well beyond her newly opened door into stores like William Ingles.

Chapter Two: Book people are good people

William Ingles, the owner of 608 S. Dubuque Street’s The Book Shop, has his own backstory and passion — though one contained quietly and refined, a wise man who shares his catalog knowledge of all-things-book through a considered sieve.

After a slight Iowa City history lesson (taken back to the 1850s, traveling from stagecoaches to railroads and finally to 1986, where he purchased the land now holding his store), William takes me to 1963. He is 11 years old and about to discover books. Choosing a downtown Des Moines bookshop over bicycles, the 45-year love affair begins.

“What really sold me on books and those who work with them, in 1963 — well, November 22nd of that year was not a good day. But folks at that bookstore were so articulate about their feelings about Kennedy’s assassination, put things in words that I couldn’t imagine putting in words. That really made an impression on me, that book people are really good people. And thoughtful.”

Perhaps even more than Nialle, William defines an Iowa City book person. He lives it. He traveled 49 states (and Mexico and Canada) as a writer for the ’70s trucker TV series “Movin’ On,” joined a staff writing team in Los Angeles, keeps contact with book buyers national and international, yet almost always maintained a residence here. And finally once home was home, like a text-spouting Pied Piper, William summoned his books — now almost 600,000 of them.

While only 25,000 books reside in his shop (“handsome” ones that make the best wallpaper), he maintains the rest in storage. Like many Iowans, a chunk of his belongings drowned in the ’08 floods (a death toll of 200,000). He owns more books than he’ll ever live to handle, but what impresses more than sheer quantity is the caliber of his knowledge of and through them — extensive and odd, bottling it up until someone like me comes along.

Things to talk to him about:

1.    How Ronald Regan ruined the publishing (and writing) trade.

2.    The delicate and precise art of the internet book market.

3.    The lost goal of university life, “to learn how to enjoy your life better.”

4.    Why Tom Clancy can do the same thing in a sentence that Melville did in a dozen pages.

5.    Desperate housewives (the type, not the show) are often boring.

6.    That folks will always decry the decline of reading, but the book shall persist.

And so forth. He’s the rare sort that would keep absorbing text and conversation forever if he could.

“One of the worst things that ever happened to me was learning – well, being told – by a junior high school librarian, as I finished reading one shelf of books and was moving onto the next shelf, telling her, ‘I’ll have everything in here read by the time I leave school!’ And she said, ‘no you won’t.’ It was big shock to me that I wouldn’t be able to read everything that’s ever been written. It wasn’t very pleasant.”

But William seems happy enough, peeking out above stacked books as we talk, a tattered gray “Old Iowa” hat on his head, cat sprawled snuggly on his chest. A perennial good neighbor with an answer and often a helping hand.

William tells this story:

“I remember a group of high school students who stumbled across our gay area. We have quite a big lesbiana section  — lesbian fiction. And two of the high school students just sort of teared up, just didn’t know there were this many books – that this subject was even addressed. It’s the 21st century and these folks were stunned that they weren’t the first people to ever have these questions. I remember the two young women who sat down in front of it were just giddy with delight.

“One of the great things about books, then, is that you can find out what other people share with you when you thought you were completely alone – and you can find other people through books, find that you’re not alone. Whether it’s a shared sense of humor or a shared sense of the world or religious value. You can find soul mates in the books that other people have written.”

And more, and more, and more

The start of another chapter: Tom Walz only stops to talk during what must be his lunch break — after hours coordinating an assortment of loose ends and people. Being the heart and hands of Uptown Bill’s Small Mall, Tom is a true social worker. Books, to him, are just as beloved as to the Nialles of the world, but take on functions more therapeutic and charitable. Uptown Bill’s and its used bookshop is the core of a nine-business web serving people with disabilities — and having recently launched their own publishing label, Sackter House Media Productions, with plans to engage the UI undergraduate writing program and a cast of characters begging to tell their stories, books will always remain crucial to the store’s mission.

Or another: Gregory Delzer is the newbie in town, opening his Defunct Books in June 2007 after moving from Spokane, Washington, to our Midwest oasis. He’s more businesslike and formal than the other bookshop owners, less glowing with book love though with some obviously lights underneath. I come and leave to NPR blaring in the background, and never am told why he labels his store “Defunct” (apparently a secret).

Or another: Joe and Linda Michaud’s Bookery and Bindery is a family business, run out of a quiet eastside Iowa City neighborhood away from its literary core. Upstairs: the typical signs of everyday life, the kitchen settings, the leftover Christmas decorations. Downstairs: 14,000 books lining rows of shelves (though sharing one with a spillover pantry), an operating table Linda uses to repair neglected binding. Joe’s jutting goatee rises and falls as he talks, giving his history of his ephemera trade, his old downtown store, a few gripping stories about Iowa’s book thieves. And all the while Linda watches and smiles, a quiet woman best described as bookish.

Still more: I never get to Murphy-Brookfield, which I’m told is run by a lovely man and is the only true specialty seller (all others are “general practitioners,” according to Nialle). Nor do I talk to Karl, an Iowa City book hero who manages to sneak up in most other conversations. I pass on interviewing a bevy of readers to attempt to diagnose our town’s book pulse, ignore the Writers’ Workshop, don’t touch Prairie Lights or the libraries.

For the first time it’s easy to understand why we’re deemed a UNESCO “City of Literature.” Not for our workshops, our alum, or our PR — but because of the “ongoing book conversation,” as Nialle calls it, an exhausting thing, “more complicated than Star Trek.” It isn’t shared by all, but those in on the talks have thousands of years of conversation starters, from Plato to Frank Herbert to Latino history, and plenty of open ears to what we talk about when we talk about books.

To arrive where we started

My conversation with Nialle is interrupted by Leiden, a 14-year-old member of Nialle’s extended book family who first visited the store when she was 10, explaining to Nialle why Marxism wouldn’t work — an excellent ice-breaker. Today’s problem: a vegetarian cookbook found in the art history section. And the ensuing conversation: “vegetable art” to paint-by-numbers to performance art, somehow ending with a misguided artist locked in a “mad scientist kitchen,” arranging food for photographs.

Without a breath in-between, Jack arrives — a young Welsh man with long black hair and a coat to match. The visitors talk about others of their kind, a Milton scholar and her young child who scuffle over taste. The reported conversation: “No. I don’t want you to get a Curious George book,” says the mother, “I don’t like Curious George.” “Don’t worry mom,” says the girl, “I don’t like Milton.” Jack reports that he appreciates reading Milton, “just so I can get other people’s Milton references.”

“It’s like watching Wayne’s World,” Nialle says. “You just have to do it.”

Nialle understands that books are necessarily haunted, inhabited by a previous owner who left a crease in the spine or folded a corner down or underlined something. “You get a feel off a book of who had it before and what it meant to them.” But still, despite being surrounded by these ghosts of readers past, it’s the living that binds her business. People like Leiden, or the volunteer who taught her to use a nail gun (“quite satisfying”), or those who foster days-long conversation about Harry Potter or finger puppets, or the past and present holders of Iowa City’s book keys.

“I’ve learned so much from my… I don’t want to say customers.” She pauses. “From my book family. People I’ve met and some who were visiting the Haunted long before I ever set foot in it. And they get so defensive of bookstores in this town. ‘I always like how this one did this, and this one does this,’ and so on. They talk about them like it’s a community and they’re people — but they’re bookstores. And they’re okay with the people changing, but not too much, not too fast.”

And for those like Nialle — guardians of ghosts, hosts of perpetual homecomings, book romancers and ecstatic lovers — there’s no reason to leave.

Paul Sorenson promises the book gods of Iowa City and beyond that he will keep reading. Contact him at with recommendations or questions, and he’ll be sure to take a break from his post-college listlessness to respond.