Faces of the City of Literature: Nialle Sylvan

Seated in the historic Northside Marketplace district, The Haunted Bookshop (named after the book by Christopher Morley) is a cherished Iowa City institution. The shop has moved around quite a bit since its founding in 1978, but it remains a notoriously vibrant part of the Iowa City literary community. Patrons flock to The Haunted Bookshop from across Eastern Iowa, anxious to pet the lush fur of the two in-house cats, Nierme and Logan, browse an eclectic collection of over 50,000 used, rare, and out-of-print books, or just feel at home in a reading nook atop the creaky floorboards of the historic Wentz House, built in 1847. Nialle Sylvan has been the owner of The Haunted Bookshop since 2004.

Queen Nierme, the female cat that rules The Haunted Bookshop

Nialle Sylvan has lived in Iowa for most of her life. For as long as she can remember, Sylvan has also been an avid reader. Her grandparents were farmers (small business owners themselves!) and pushed Sylvan to read and explore from an early age. They encouraged her so much, in fact, that she, “got a library card and a bus pass on the same day when [she] was ten.”

After attending Coe College in Cedar Rapids, where she dabbled in physics, philosophy, and English, Sylvan departed for new adventures abroad – namely, she ran away from home to, “galavant through Europe and hang out with Da Vinci restorers…”

While in Paris, she literally fell through the door of a bookstore while avoiding a man riding past on his bicycle wielding a bag of nails. That day, Sylvan built a bookshelf with George Whitman, the owner of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop (which still stands at 37 Rue de la Bûcherie). She was enamored with the smell of the books and the connection that a bookshop owner develops with their customers – what she calls the ‘life cycle of the reader.’

Sylvan returned to Iowa City and began visiting book shops around town. When the owner of The Haunted Bookshop decided to retire, Sylvan stepped up and bought the store. The year was 2004, major media outlets were proclaiming the end of used book stores, and Sylvan was only 26.

Asked about her motivation to purchase the bookstore in the midst of pessimistic clamoring, Sylvan replies, “Basically, the whole point of the bookstore, for me, was that I could then continue getting majors in everything forever.”

A natural leader, Sylvan swiftly developed a management system for the bookshop and learned that an owner must decipher the habits of their customer, follow the life cycles of novels, and understand what books to purchase based on which ideas are returning to the public eye in any given month. This knowledge was crucial to the survival of the small business during its early years.

Despite the challenges of owning a bookstore, Sylvan cannot picture herself doing anything else.

“There are patrons I have now that I met when they were not yet visible, and they are now reading grown-up books. I have had patrons come in at 11 or 12, and now they return as adults…Gosh, one of my favorite memories of working here is when a little girl came in looking for a Goosebumps book and I got her to leave with Jane Eyre,” she recalls with a grin.

In a sense, Sylvan equates owning a bookstore to serving as a central community figure. A bookstore owner understands, in an intimate way, what their patrons are reading and how their ideas and interests have been shaped over time. One of her favorite parts of the job is making recommendations. Sylvan possesses the capability to push readers towards challenging ideas and engaging books, and it is a responsibility she does not take lightly. People often ask her if The Haunted Bookshop is truly haunted. When one considers the history of each book, and the connections that books offer to bygone times or individuals, the answer seems obvious.

“I am fortunate enough to have a window into the world of my readers…I wish I could explain all of this to people when they ask if the store is really haunted. It certainly is! There are books in here that, to me, are specifically haunted by the memory of a particular person,” she says.

While the books may be haunted by those that read them before, the Haunted Bookshop is decidedly cozy. The shelves tower overhead, winding themselves into tight aisles and hidden nooks. The shop is organized into dozens of sections – a large children’s section dominates the ground floor, complete with stuffed animals and thousands of books. As one wanders through, they pass from mystery to science fiction and fantasy, then crime fiction. A few paces more, and patrons find themselves perusing art criticism, jazz, and rock-n-roll. Upstairs, the material becomes more academic – science, history, and philosophy abound. Sylvan’s favorite section, filled with what she calls ‘biologues,’ is tucked away on the second story.

“Biologues are a special category of travelogues. They are the uniquely American ‘I went into the woods to live deliberately’ story. Or the desert, or the Antarctic. These are all Anglophones who write a story about going out into the wilderness and…the experience of nature and what that makes them think about human nature,” Sylvan explains.

When visiting The Haunted Bookshop, patrons can pick up a copy of a biologue, or whatever else their heart desires, and find a seat in one of the many comfy couches or chairs. They may even be fortunate enough to receive a visit from one of the in-house mascots, two fluffy cats named Nierme and Logan.

She says, “The cats have worked here for 11 years now. I was always a dog person. I had never owned a cat…We were at an animal shelter, and there was a cat. She was like, ‘Get me out of here!’ and she had really expressive eyes, so I was like, ‘OK, bookstore – cats – I guess that’s a thing.’”

The cats have been living in The Haunted Bookshop nearly as long as Sylvan has been the owner. Together, they have seen patrons come and go, children grow up, and the Iowa City landscape change.

“Someday, I might have to find someone to carry on the legacy…For now, I have 40 years of shoes to fill.”

To find out more about The Haunted Bookshop and their collection of over 50,000 used and rare books, visit them online or in person at 219 North Gilbert Street.