University of Iowa students Bailey Engledow of Cedar Rapids (left) and Lexis Waddell of Burlington buy a vending table outside The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City in March 2021. (The Gazette)
Nialle Sylvan, owner of the Haunted Bookstore in Iowa City, stands outside the store in March 2021. (The Gazette)
The haunted bookstore has moved to online and phone orders. (The Gazette)
IOWA CITY — Long before online browsing became a thing, avid bibliophiles devoted themselves to browsing.
“We fully understand that (in-person) browsing, and what we call the serendipity of browsing, is very important,” said Haunted Bookstore owner Nialle Sylvan.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt that tradition at Iowa City’s oldest second-hand bookstore, which continues to follow rigorous sanitary precautions.
Unless Johnson County’s daily infection rate drops below 10 per 100,000 residents, the store is open by appointment only, with masks required, in part out of consideration for Johnson’s 17-month-old son. Sylvan, Rowan.
The store’s website links to the Mayo Clinic data tracker, which showed a rate of 11 per 100,000 as of the end of last week.
“This summer had very high numbers, which is very disappointing,” Sylvan recalls.
“A lot of people come from all over the country to visit the bookstores in this area.”
Customers can consult the website or call to check the times when access to the store can be reserved.
“It’s very important to us to maintain a place where people know we’re taking every precaution possible,” Sylvan said. “We want to make it a very safe place.
“We think about our air exchanges, we think about ventilation. It is important that we provide the safest place possible.
Online sales have become even more important during the pandemic. Managing inventory online is “almost a business in its own right,” according to Sylvan.
“It’s a network of little stores like this,” Sylvan said of biblio.com. “When people shop there, our phone number is right there.”
Sylvan said “Surprise me!” the bags, an idea developed at the start of the pandemic, 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 loves hiking and riding horses.’ said Sylvan. “I can find $50 worth of books, which can be 10 books in our store.”
Sylvan dispatched “Surprise me! bags on both sides and many places in between.
“It’s Iowa City, so a lot of our friends move every four years,” she said. “Many of our friends still support us.”
Owner: Nialle Sylvan
Address: 219 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
Phone: (319) 337-2996
“Puzzle Days” are scheduled for October 15 — next Saturday — and October 22, when more than 400 different puzzles from the shop will be displayed in the courtyard.
“We’re always coming up with new ideas for ways to get things to people despite our current circumstances,” Sylvan said.
Sylvan, a Marshalltown native, worked at a bookstore in Cedar Rapids while attending Coe College.
“I’ve been a bookstore fan all my life,” she said.
After college, Sylvan had worked for a law firm and a few other jobs before the boutique, which opened in 1978, became available in 2004.
“Everything fell into place,” she said. “It was a bit miraculous at the time.
“I didn’t go to graduate school because I wanted to get a doctorate. in all. It was kind of a way to get that.
It starts with learning the market.
“Knowing your community is the most important thing a used book store can do,” Sylvan said.
“It was meeting people, it was finding out what courses were offered at the university, it was learning a bit more about the work done by some of the university’s famous professors.”
Sylvan moved the shop to its current location, an 1847 house listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 2014. The shop’s name comes from a 1919 novel by Christopher Morley, a “library mystery” set in the world books.
Despite the age of the building, Sylvan does not claim that the house is actually haunted by anything other than his three rescue cats. But there may be a mystery there.
“I know three cats,” she said. “It’s a complicated situation.
“I have people who insist on telling me that they have pictures on their phones of the fluffy white cat that is here. We don’t have fluffy white cats.
Sylvan and her husband, Joshua Langseth, are the only staff.
“Right now it’s just a single-family show,” she said. “It was me and my husband, whom I met at the store. We had our wedding reception here in 2014.
“He helps me when he’s not doing his real job, which is teaching at Coe College.”
Sylvan remains hopeful that COVID-19 infection rates will decline this winter, allowing a return to something like business as usual.
“In normal years, I buy from people who show up or want you to look at their professional collection,” she said.
“We didn’t buy any books during the pandemic, but that’s okay because I had a big backlog of books.”
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