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Independent bookstores at peak during digital age

BY ALISON KEIM | FEBRUARY 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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It was clear that something was changing as the Amazon Kindle was released in 2011 — the way the world was reading was changing.

But during the e-book peak season, independent bookstores have been growing popularity in Iowa City.

“I think that independent bookstores have staff that are warm, smart, and spontaneous,” said Jan Weissmiller, a co-owner of Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St. “We like seeing people. We don’t look at this as just a job; everyone who works at Prairie Lights loves Prairie Lights and is really curious about our customers that come in here.”

In 2011, e-books captured $3.2 billion in the bookselling market, and that number is estimated to move toward $10 billion by 2016, yet the number of customers that walk into independent bookstores is rapidly growing as well.

“There is something about touching a book, writing in a book, and knowing where you are in one. Just physically and technically, there is something that people like about old-fashion books,” Weissmiller said. “There is also an awareness that bookstores are endangered, and I think people know if they want a bookstore, they have to support it.”

Nialle Sylvan, the owner of the Haunted Bookshop, 219 N. Gilbert St., said she has had several experiences over the years that have made owning an independent bookstore unique and worthwhile.

“I was there the first time one kid used a first-person pronoun. He said, ‘I am going’ for the first time ever, in his whole life,” Sylvan said. “There was also a young male who had discovered a female novelist and really liked her for the first time. I was really proud of that.”

The genuine hospitality and commitment is an ultimate goal that independent bookstores thrive for, and it seems to be something that the customers truly admire as well.

“I think the invention of the Kindle is a great thing, I own one, but I still love to come to independent bookstores simply for the environment,” said University of Iowa freshman Melissa Chanto Lukert, who was sitting in Prairie Lights Times Club reading with her Kindle.

Weissmiller said the customers enjoy that the employees know their names and what they like — it creates a very homey environment that many have cherished. 

“I like to just sit in the coffee shop and read or do my homework, even when I am by myself,” Chanto Lukert said. “When I’m here [Prairie Lights], it is almost like I am enjoying someone’s company.”

With the digital age, independent bookstores owners say having a place where the service is genuine and where they connect with the customers is refreshing, and is most likely the reason for the growing popularity.

“Independent bookstores are where people exchange ideas; it’s where people go to meet,” Sylvan said. “It’s a community location, it’s very active, and that is something that really speaks to people. And maybe people are just remembering that books are places where beautiful things happen; we all kind of need a little of that right now.”


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