Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - Celebrating our City of Lit's used book shops

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 14, 2009

Our View - Celebrating our City of Lit's used book shops

In the past year, we've printed many columns and letters celebrating how UNESCO designated Iowa City as an International City of Literature. The city gained the honor largely because of the presence of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. But one of the hitherto uncelebrated features of Iowa City's creative economy has been the long, proud history of its local used booksellers.

Joe Michaud, former owner of The Bookery, has decided to correct that oversight with his long-titled book, "Booking in Iowa: The Book Trade In and Around Iowa City, A Look Back," recently published by the Iowa City-based Camp Pope Bookshop.

In his introduction, Michaud explains how his 25 years as a bookseller was a "period of boom and bust for the used, out-of-print and rare bookseller." The boon came with a local infusion of large numbers of antiquarian books as people emptied out their attics, basements, barns and garages. The bust side, unfortunately, came for a variety of reasons, including falling prices for collectibles, rising rents and, of course, the Internet.

As Michaud writes, "What became a boon to the book buyer sounded the death knell for thousands of big city and small town used book shops."

Michaud divides the book into a 75-page account of his own history as a book scout and bookstore owner and an almost equally long annotated list of past and present bookshops. Having arrived in Iowa City in the early 1970s -- when stores like Epstein's were housed in the temporary structures set up during the city's urban renewal phase -- Michaud didn't get into the book business directly for another decade. One late spring Saturday afternoon in 1983, he and his son were shopping at a multi-family garage sale when the sale organizer suggested, "Look, how about taking all those books off my hands? There must be 20 boxes there." Paying $10 -- 50 cents a box -- Michaud suddenly found himself in the business "that would nourish us physically and spiritually for the next 20-plus years."

Michaud provides a nostalgic romp through this earlier age of bookselling -- providing an insightful guide to how he moved from merely scouting for good books, to renting space in the Antique Mall, to expanding to a storefront at 116 S. Linn St., to buying and filling a house at 523 Iowa Ave., to moving to an Internet-only business. (Since writing the book, Michaud has sold his remaining inventory to Nialle Sylvan, owner of The Haunted Bookshop at 203 N. Linn St.)

Although an insightful would-be entrepreneur might be able to pull lessons from Michaud's late 20th-century experiences and reapply them to an early 21st-century economy, the primary value of "Booking in Iowa" comes in how it documents the many different stories of the booksellers who have thrived right here in Literature City. It's a full account of the shop owners who were in business for only a few years -- including Charles Drum (C. Drum Bookseller) and Jim Mulac (Jim's Used Books and Records) -- as well as those who continue to provide a space for literary treasure hunting and bookish conversation -- including Sylvan, William Ingles (The Book Shop, 608 S. Dubuque St.) and Jane Murphy and Mark Brookfield (Murphy-Brookfield Books, 219 N. Gilbert St.).

We're grateful to Michaud for reminding us just how much our present City of Literature depends on these local business owners to keep us connected to the rare and out-of-print world of the past.

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