I never thought I’d say that. Really. I’m a coastal snob: I’ve lived on the East Coast and I’ve lived on the West Coast and I’ve always firmly believed I don’t belong anywhere that’s more than twenty miles from an ocean.
And then I visited my son in Iowa City.
The University of Iowa has a world famous writers’ workshop, a two-year program that culminates in a Master’s of Fine Arts. It’s spawned a ton of famous authors, including John Irving and Jane Smiley. Earlier this year, I discovered that they also have a summer high school program. My son applied, got in, went for two weeks, and needed to be picked up at the beginning of July. My husband had already made plans to get him (and to spend the weekend with him in Chicago). I suddenly realized I wanted to go too. An extra plane ticket was purchased, my son was left in the dark so I could surprise him, and the next thing I knew I was popping a Sonata on a red-eye and waking up in Chicago.
We drove the four hours to Iowa City. It was appropriately hot but not too hot (I was told we were lucky in that last part). After we’d greeted our son and met some of the faculty and students, Johnny suggested we walk into town so he could show us his favorite coffee shop.
Now, you have to understand that the bulk of my writing has always been done in coffee shops. Mostly Starbucks because there’s one every two feet on the west side of LA and they let you sit as long as you want. But I’ve always yearned for something a little warmer, a little quirkier, a little more historical.
The Java House is the coffee shop of my dreams. Johnny knew it too. As we walked in, he said, “You have to see the back room, Mom. You would so kill to work there.” He was right. I would. You buy your coffee up front, each cup brewed fresh to order in individual mugs set under pictures of famous authors who studied or worked in Iowa, so the barrista can just tell you, “Number three: Ann Patchett” or whatever. Then you grab your coffee when the mug is full.
Anyway, we got our drinks and Johnny led us toward the back room and gestured through the doorway. I gazed. I looked. I sighed. I murmured a heartfelt, “I wish I had my laptop!” I could have settled in there for the rest of the weekend. It was dark and cozy, but surprisingly large, with tons of wooden tables and good chairs. Everyone in there was writing. Everyone. There were more MacBooks than at an Apple Store. It felt like Home.
But we were only in Iowa for an hour or so, so we stayed just long enough to drink the excellent coffee (Johnny had something more exotic–some kind of fizzy almond drink, if I remember correctly). There was one more place I wanted to go before we left the pretty little downtown and that, of course, was a bookstore.
Prairie Lights is an Important Bookstore because of its proximity to the University of Iowa and all the famous and brilliant authors who come there to speak or teach. It is, as you’d suspect, largely dedicated to fiction. It’s a beautiful store, several stories high, welcoming and airy. Nothing is crammed in. There’s space for each book to be displayed, found, leafed through. They have their own coffee shop–not that we had any bladder space left for more coffee at that point–and plenty of room to host readings and lectures which they do on a regular basis. Check out the Live from Prairie Lights series, which you can watch streamed live on the ‘net if you don’t have the good luck to go to Iowa.
All this within a one block radius. You can see why I was ready to pack up and move to Iowa City. I’m having a little bit of trouble convincing Rob he should quit his job and uproot the whole family for the sake of a coffee shop and bookstore, but I’ll keep working on it. Kim understands, don’t you, Kim?
15 South Dubuque St.
Iowa City, IA 52240
The Java House
150 Stevens Drive, Iowa City, IA
t: 319.354.2111 ext. 105; f: 319.354.7314