Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Haunted Bookshop and Elsewhere in The Athens of the Midwest


Iowa City, near the Hamburg Inn.

It was a crisp, sunny day in The Athens of the Midwest.

I shed my jacket immediately.  Was it warm, or was it the ambiance? I often wonder if I exaggerate the charm of Iowa City, but it is a nice place to visit.  Proud citizens plant boastful signs on their lawns:  THE GREATEST SMALL CITY FOR THE ARTS.  They are vain of its status as a UNESCO City of Literature, which, in practical terms, has led to a proliferation of commemorative sidewalk plaques on Iowa Avenue, with quotes from Wallace Stegner, Kurt Vonnegut, and Marilynne Robinson, and a book festival.

But none of that was the purpose of our trip.  We simply like absorbing the culture.  We walked to The Haunted Bookshop, a used bookshop named after Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop, a novel set in a bookshop of the same name, and located in the Northside neighborhood.  Around the block is the historic Hamburg Inn, haunted every four years by presidential candidates in search of photo ops, which my mother frequented as a teenager.


I was worried about the fate of The Haunted Bookshop. According to the website, it was open only by appointment, and cost $25 to browse for an hour.  

"That can't be right," my husband said, but I was gloomy.   He had no idea how deeply business owners in Iowa City dug in during the pandemic.  Iowa City has, unlike many places, taken Covid seriously.  Until quite recently, Prairie Lights, the other bookstore in town, was closed except for curbside pickup.

When we saw the bookstalls and tables of books on the tree lawn, I said, "Oh, thank God." 

But it was not quite open.  My husband went up the steps, only to find the sign on the door with the dreaded information about the $25 appointments.  

I wondered, "How do you pay for the dollar books?"

"You drop the money through the slot."

We burst out laughing.  Now that, you must admit, is funny.

We were not the only browsers on the tree lawn.  The other people seemed equally shocked.  Nobody wanted to pay $25 for an appointment.  We all browsed silently among the dollar books.  I  considered Frank Conroy's book about Nantucket, but I've never been to Nantucket, and can't say I ever will.   Nantucket attracts a different ilk of summer visitors, among them President Biden, President Obama, Ben Stiller, Kim Kardashian, and Woody Allen (my source, "e-online!",  may not be reliable, though).  Perhaps charming Frank Conroy stayed gratis with wealthy friends.  

I do hope the owner of The Haunted Bookshop is healthy, because the appointment for $25 doesn't sound like a good business practice.  Perhaps she has been ill, or her immune system is compromised in some way.  But let's hope that she is simply eccentric.   There are a lot of eccentrics, after all.

 A wonderful day trip, on a beautiful day, to the Athens of the Midwest, or perhaps The Shire.   My one complaint:  there are only two bookstores left.  That is typical of these times, but is disgraceful for a UNESCO City of Literature.


  1. $25 for an appt to browse the bookstore. In order for the bookstore owner to get people to come in, she (or he) will have to provide a catalogue. It is true that many people enjoy browsing for hours and buy nothing. In Italy I remember there were bookstores where you cannot open the books. They sealed shut with tapes. You can pick them up, look at the outside, glimpse some of the blurb (but the tapes cover them too). You must buy to see anything for real.

    1. The catalogue would be online. Books sealed with tape is madness.

  2. "Nantucket attracts a different ilk of summer visitors"
    It's probably more resonant of Melville in winter though. Cheaper too, I expect - or does it do so well out of summer visitors that the natives go away for the winter too?

    1. Take my Melville, find a rooming house - and that takes care of winter!