By Nathaniel Bläsing
Upon arriving in Iowa City a year ago with my own library still boxed and in a distant part of the country, I ventured in search of not only a book, but also a place like my favorite booksellers of New Orleans. I thought this would be an easy task in a UNESCO City of Literature. However, the choices were few. I was not expecting to find what I sought in a little place called The Book Shop. But at the sight of its narrow passages, densely packed shelves and stacks of books, I knew the Muses were smiling upon me. I was home.
It wasn’t the name that set The Book Shop apart from other places. It was the large and unparalleled selection of long out of print novels, anthologies and chapbooks written by Workshop graduates or Iowa natives. The Book Shop inspired countless local and visiting authors in pursuit of the perfect word, thought or distraction.
We are now down to one book reseller and one independent bookseller. This is a sad state for any city.
The Book Shop was housed in one of three brick Civil War era cottages. This is where the literary history of South Dubuque Street grows by at least one more chapter. Its twin building at 610 South Dubuque Street had also been a reseller, Jim’s Used Books and Records, a hub of activity during the early days of Iowa City’s own literary movement, Actualism. With Actualism, Iowa City was once branded “Poetry City.” Shortly after Jim’s closed, nearly 30 years ago, The Book Shop opened and carried on in the same tradition.
It’s devastating when one of these most prominent ambassadors to and maintainers of the written word is eliminated. This was evidenced by the huge public outcry to stop the demolition of The Book Shop. When efforts to save the structure finally failed, patrons arrived from all over the region to offer their support and preserve books from the wrecking ball. They carefully boxed, labeled and moved tens of thousands of books without care for anything other than to protect the pages of the past.
On May 27, these buildings were torn down. Today all that remains of these markers of our literary past are three piles of clay bricks around three square foundation holes protected by an orange plastic fence. No sign, no plaque, not even graffiti remains to honor the literature or the conversations on books and writing they once housed.
We are down to one book reseller and one independent bookseller. This is a sad state for any city of our size, let alone one that pushed to be called North America’s City of Literature. This hole doesn’t need to be filled by negotiating away the cost of rent for book resellers, but preservation of their trade is as worthy as preserving our historical structures.
I know of at least one book reseller who would like to reopen his doors, but escalating rents limit this prospect. And perhaps expanding the UniverCity Program, or creating property tax reductions for literature oriented businesses could help more to locate themselves downtown.
This article was originally published in Little Village 190.