116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Long before browsing online became a thing, avid bibliophiles were dedicated to browsing.
“We do understand very much that (in-person) browsing, and what we call the serendipity of browsing, is very important,” said Nialle Sylvan, owner of the Haunted Bookshop.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt that tradition at Iowa City’s oldest used bookstore, which continues to follow rigorous health precautions.
Unless Johnson County’s daily infection rate drops below 10 per 100,000 population, the shop is open by appointment only, with masks required, partly out of consideration for Sylvan’s 17-month-old son Rowan.
The shop’s website links to the Mayo Clinic’s data tracker, which showed a rate of 11 per 100,000 late last week.
“This summer has had very high numbers, which is very disappointing,” Sylvan recalled.
“A lot of people come from across the country to visit bookstores in this area.”
Customers may consult the website or call to check hours when access to the shop may be reserved.
“It’s very important for us to maintain a place where people know we’re taking all the precautions that we can,” Sylvan said. “We want to make this a very safe place.
“We think about our air exchanges, we think about ventilation. It’s important that we offer the safest place we can.”
Online sales became even more important during the pandemic. Managing online inventory is “almost a whole separate business,” according to Sylvan.
“It’s a network of little stores like this,” Sylvan said of biblio.com. “When people shop there, there’s our phone number right there.”
Sylvan said the shop’s “Surprise Me!” bags, an idea developed in the pandemic’s early days, remain popular. Customers email their budget and reading interests, and she selects books that match — a way to maintain a bit of serendipity.
“The customer can say, ‘I have $50, I have a little girl who likes hiking in the mountains and horses.’” Sylvan said. “I can find $50 worth of books, which in our store can be 10 books.”
Sylvan has shipped “Surprise Me!” bags to both coasts and many places in between.
“It’s Iowa City, so a lot of our friends move away every four years,” she said. “A lot of our friends still to support us.”
Owner: Nialle Sylvan
Address: 219 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
Phone: (319) 337-2996
“Puzzle days” are set for Oct. 15 — this coming Saturday — and 22, when the shop’s more than 400 different jigsaw puzzles will be displayed in the backyard.
“We are still coming up with new ideas for ways we can get things to people despite our current circumstances,” Sylvan said.
Sylvan, a Marshalltown native, worked at a Cedar Rapids bookstore while attending Coe College.
“I had been a bookstore fan my entire life,” she said.
After college, Sylvan had worked for a law firm and a few other jobs before the shop, opened in 1978, became available in 2004.
“Everything came together,” she said. “It felt a little miraculous at the time.
“I didn’t go to grad school because I wanted to get a Ph.D. in everything. This was a kind of way get that.”
That starts with learning the market.
“Knowing your community is the most important thing a used book store can do,” Sylvan said.
“It was meeting individual people, it was finding out what classes are being offered at the university, it was learning a little bit about the work that was done by some of the university’s famous professors.”
Sylvan moved the shop to its present location, an 1847 house listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 2014. The store’s name comes from a 1919 novel by Christopher Morley, a “bibliomystery” set in the world of books.
Despite the building’s age, Sylvan doesn’t claim the house is actually haunted by anything but its three rescue cats. But there may be a mystery there.
“There are three cats that I know of,” she said. “It’s a complicated situation.
“I have people who insist to me they’ve got pictures on their phone of the white fluffy cat that’s here. We’ve got no white fluffy cats.”
Sylvan and her husband, Joshua Langseth, are the only staff.
“Right now this is just a one-family show,” she said. “It’s me and my husband, who I met at the store. We had our wedding reception here in 2014.
“He helps me out when he’s not doing his real job, which is teaching at Coe College.”
Sylvan remains hopeful COVID-19 infection rates will ease this winter, allowing a return to something like business as usual.
“In normal years, I buy from people who just show up or want you to look at their professional collection,” she said.
“We haven’t bought any books during the pandemic, but that’s OK because I had a big backlog of books.”
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