From Iowa With Love

March 15, 2012 § 13 Comments

I asked the woman at the front desk if those were oil storage tanks a few hundred yards behind the Coralville, IA motel where I had spent the night. “I think” she said hesitantly, ” it’s a petroleum processing plant.”

They looked, from the outside at least, exactly like the tanks James Bond blows up in the movie Goldfinger.

So, behind me were petroleum tanks, in front of me, a gas station, and in my car, books, galleys (ARC’s), catalogs, order forms, the tools of an unrepentant book salesman of the old school. It was winter in Iowa, but mild for the Midwest in February, and I felt lucky. I had driven from Chicago, darkness catching up with me a couple hours after I had left, but no ice, snow or wind. I had the luxury of putting the European weather nightmare out of mind.

Driving past small Illinois towns invisible from highway 88, I was reminded of the fact that I have spent the last thirty years moving like a pencil point from bookstore city to bookstore town, my fly-over (or drive-by) country being any place that lacked commerce in books.

Who knows what splendor or squalor, what pathos or adventure I may have missed because of my book-centric reading of the road atlas? But I must repeat I’ve been lucky, because through snow, heat, rain or gloom of night, I knew I was promoting the sale of a worthy product, something that provided a unique and lasting kind of pleasure to thousands of people.

In my corner of the book business, many of us rarely thought in terms of “millions” of readers, and we still don’t. Most books never sell enough to pay the authors minimum wage for the time they have spent writing them. For every book that is reprinted after the initial press run, how many are dropped without a word? For every book that makes the New York Times list in a particular year, thousands and thousands are remaindered, pulped, forgotten.

Presto! Through the digidemain of Apple/Amazon/Google, millions of ipads and e-readers beg for content, causing some publishers and authors to drool over the gold in them thar hills. Amanda Hocking is every aspiring author’s Steve Jobs. A woman who is one of my Facebook “friends” recently wrote in praise of an author who succeeded by paying shills to post positive reviews on Amazon and other sites: “She’s my hero,” this woman wrote.

Enter Brucejquiller riding his horse into Iowa City, hitching it on the post in front of Prairie Lights. There, like an apparition in the dust of the road, stood Jim Harris, the former owner of the store, feeding a parking meter as if it were about to bite. I hadn’t seen Jim in donkey’s years. “Jim!” I cried, “Jim Harris!”

“Who is that?” he replied, peering at me hatless from a hundred yards away, suspicion written all over his face.

“Bruce Miller!” I replied.

“Oh” as he turned away, ” I didn’t recognize you with your scull cap on. I have to pay attention to this meter.” I looked back at my car reflexively for a moment, and Jim was gone.  What he called my “scull cap” is a common sort of  knit hat.

Like a dog shaking off the cold I shook off the dust of Jim Harris and entered Prairie Lights, one of the best bookstores in the country and in short order I spotted Paul Ingram, compulsive reader, able buyer, enthusiastic reviewer and the keeper of “Paul’s Corner.” Paul’s videotaped book reviews ought to be on the websites of a hundred stores at least. NPR producers take note, “60 minutes” set your clock, here’s your man, someone whose infectious love of books might please millions.

So…I talked, Paul bought, his pen striking the catalogs decisively. We were partying like it was 1985, the last time we had worked together. Every now and then he picked up a galley from the stack I had brought and breezed through it. After looking through BLUE HIGHWAYS REVISITED from the University of Missouri Press, Paul kind of weighed the over-sized galley in one hand. “This is really good” he said, “I’ll try it.” I sold him everything from soup to nuts. From DEBATES IN THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES, ISLAND OF THE DOOMED and LEAK


We know the give-and-take of the book buying process is far from perfect. But, not to worry, we reps and buyers will soon be replaced by customer-driven, crowd-sourced algorithms, and the automated process will be much more efficient, a better business model. The most technologically up-to-date library system will become the model for retail bookstores.

Once the bookstore as we’ve known it ceases to exist, the Horde Mind that Jeron Lanier writes about will then coalesce around the creation of an online bookstore museum with countless live links. The museum site may double as a tool for the quick and easy diagnosis of carpel tunnel syndrome, severe eye-strain, and Online Addiction  Syndrome. It won’t be long before contentious debates erupt, and malicious kindle fanatics render the museum unusable through hack attack.

But, I digress.

Paul is quite open-minded, and reads more than anyone I know. I suppose if he had a national platform from which to stimulate the reading (and sale) of books, the publishers would make him a god, and I would no longer have the pleasure of working with him.

Another old friend of mine is Jan Weissmiller, a poet and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who, like Vaclav Havel, has ascended from the grass roots to run the show, that is, she was a buyer for the store and now co-owns it.  Everyone knows it isn’t easy to run a bookstore in the age of Bezos (not that it was ever easy), but behold: PRAIRIE LIGHTS SELLS WAGON-LOADS OF BOOKS!

(And so do many other stores….which reminds me…..the biggest problem some stores had this last Christmas –Roberta Rubin, for example, who owns the fabulous Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, IL– was re-stocking. The publishers ran out of  books. Did they send too many copies to the giant warehouses? Did they fall for the propaganda of the Digi-Industrial Complex and decide that print was dead? I guess we’ll never know.)

Of course, stores like Prairie Lights would sell more but for the popularity of that finger clickin’ good, Almighty River of Conveyer Belts. Can’t you feel the power coursing through you, from finger tips to elbow when you click that button, imagining the book flying hither on dangerous rapids as you move away from your screen, or set it down on a table?

Curious though, that all across the land, from California to the New York highlands, writers and academics who say they can’t afford to shop in stores, flex their digits instead of their legs, jamming their money through the thin filament of the internet. And yet, many of these same people, when their book is published, beg their local bookstore to host an event, and prowl the aisles checking to see if the blessed object is prominently displayed!

So, grad students, professors, poets and writers everywhere, I beseech you: leave your apartments and houses, or if you can’t, let your fingers do the walking at the website of your local bookstore! You can’t afford it? You can’t help to keep solvent  the place that fosters the imagination of a broad public? The place where readers work and thrive, attempting to make money for you, selling your books day in and day out?

The truth is you can. If you buy ten books a month, buy three at the store. If you buy scholarly books you will find that the Mighty River of Conveyors no longer discounts them, so, yes, drag yourself the few blocks you need to walk and pick up the book at Prairie Lights, City Lights, Common Good Books, University of Minnesota Bookstore, Seminary Coop, Rainbow Coop, Left Bank Books, Books and Books, Lemuria Books:______________your local store name here.

But getting back to Jan Weissmiller. I said Paul bought everything from soup to nuts, but, the enthusiasm of the moment carried me away, because Jan buys the poetry. And who better to have as a poetry buyer than a poet and bibliophile like Jan?  She works tirelessly on behalf of authors because she believes in them, she believes in the store, she believes in books, and she believes, dear reader, in you.

If you read her book of poetry, IN DIVIDED LIGHT, you will read about the seasons, about grief, about people and you can’t help but notice what a thoughtful observer she is of things outside herself. It makes sense then, that she is also an editor (along with Jerry Harp) of A POETRY CRITICISM READER.

So, the day after my messy bar-food lunch with Paul, Jan and I had a diced cucumber salad sort of lunch: thus I had the best of both worlds, the ale-swilling milieu of the workin’ man, and gilt-edged club of the factory owner. A happy “High and Low” experience nothing at all like the Kurosawa film.

After lunch with Jan, I climbed into my coupe, motoring over to the offices of the University of Iowa Press. It was the first time I had been to the house (one of the oldest in Iowa City) where the press makes its home. It is one of the most beautiful offices I have ever seen. And I have to say that at U Iowa Press, they not only know how to treat authors, but sales reps as well. Despite the fact that everyone on staff had mountains of work to do, they all, including Allison Means whom I’ve known for many years, took the time to greet me, answer any questions I might have, and show me around.

My only disappointment was that Jim McCoy, the director of the press, was out of the office that day. I saw Jim at the AWP meeting in Chicago and I told him when I grow up I want to run a well-oiled machine like he does, which is how the operations of the press appeared to me. I also wanted to see him that day to tell him how well I was selling THE LEGACY OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE and some of the other books on the list, the memoir TRESPASSES for example, and the poetry anthology CITY OF THE BIG SHOULDERS.

So, having seen everyone in Iowa City I had wanted to see, I retired the coupe, grabbed the reins of my horse and pack animal, and headed West.


§ 13 Responses to From Iowa With Love

  • ron says:

    You are the book cowboy, Bruce, riding into the dusty horizon. Your work is not for the tenderfoot nor the tender-hearted. If I had a Stetson, I wave it in fond salute.

  • Bruce J. Quiller 4-EVER! This was a great read, Bruce.

    I was wondering, as I reveled in this, how the mild weather and the really solid 4Q/Christmas stores are reporting, at least down in Mississippi, how that has affected and brightened mood? Two stores I visited Wednesday, Reed’s Gumtree in Tupelo and the Book Mart in Starkville, reported that the Downtown Association and the Chamber of Commerce had jointly done some really effective shop local promotions. I was seeing some solidly happy people on 3.14.2012. Do you sense some of this new bouyancy?

  • Descriptive writing and really sets the scene for the (somewhat) thankless and solitary job that you do. Have a good spring and stay away from petroleum products!

  • Darryl P. says:

    Bruce–thank you, my friend. My memories of you and I pouring over the catalogs at SBX are among my fondest. I loved reading this piece,although with great sadness for what you are talking about. I still get a thrill out of finding new books and holding old ones. The thrill is not gone just the consumer that kept the orchards alive. But it’s guys like you still out there that I admire the most. Darryl Price,bookseller

  • Paul Ingram says:

    You’re my hero, Bruce

  • How lovely Bruce! Thank you for capturing the essence & importance of what we bricks & mortar folk do every day. There are so many riches in the “physical” world that just aren’t there online.
    And thank you for mentioning our store — every little bit helps!

  • John McLeod says:

    Nice post, Bruce. I really enjoyed it. Now you just need to get down to Athens to visit UGA Press. Can’t promise our offices will be as nice as Iowa’s, but we’ll show you a good time.

  • Makes me long for the good old days on the road

  • Nice post, Bruce. Good to hear of your travels and titles.

  • Paul Bennett says:

    A poetic travel through book-buying and book-loving heartland. Well done, Bruce. I look forward to checking in on each new post.

  • […] love to BruceJQuiller who first brought Prairie Lights and Paul’s Corner to my attention in his beautifully […]

  • Marilyn L. Stasio says:

    Made me tear up, Bruce. Tried to think of my own favorite bookstores, but alas! all that came to mind were the ones — mostly in New England, where I grew up — that no longer exist.


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