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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): J. Harley McIlrath

Part of an ongoing series about people associated with Grinnell College.

I’d like to introduce you to my friend and former colleague, Harley McIlrath. For the past fifteen or so years, Harley has been the primary book person in the Grinnell College bookstores. Among other things, he’s the person who orders our texts and trade books and, more generally, thinks about the role of books in the book store. In many ways, he’s the first person faculty envision about when they think about the bookstore.

Harley came to Grinnell through a fairly circuitous route. He grew up in the town and started college at the College. But his interests drew him elsewhere (University of Northern Iowa, I believe). At some point, he opened a used book store. But family drew him back to Grinnell, and, as he returned, he joined the College bookstore.

Harley was (and is) a real bookseller. If you’ve met a real bookseller, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Harley graciously shared his knowledge of books with the College. That is, he knows a lot about books: He is not only well read in many areas, but knows issues about publishing, about the book trade, and more. He is also a talented author, with at least one book of short, literary, nonfiction under his belt. His knowledge and skills meant that he was someone many faculty could talk to about planning for their courses. Harley knows and cares enough Grinnell that one can always learn something new about the history of the College from him, whether it be anecdotes about Peter Coyote ’64 or stories about the legendary Bruce Springsteen concert. He still remains connected; when I posted my essay about Terry Bisson ’64, Harley dropped me a note that Bisson was working on finishing Joe Wall’s Grinnell College in the 20th Century. (I hope that Harley wasn’t making that up.)

I’ve had many pleasurable conversations with Harley through the years, about books, about music (he’s one of the only people I know who not only has heard of, but even likes, Scruffy the Cat), about life in general. And Harley had many great stories to go with our conversations: stories about meeting authors and musicians (including the members of Scruffy the Cat), stories about the history of Grinnell, stories about many different people.

In addition to the many pleasurable conversations, I’ve always enjoyed Harley’s enthusiasm for our alumni and faculty authors. He was careful to make sure that we stocked books by alums (particularly at reunion time) and, for a time, even worked to gather a variety of historical texts related to the College. I know that visiting authors like chatting with him, and I’m still sad that I didn’t get to sit in on his conversation with Coyote and Bisson.

Beyond work, Harley is father to two awesome kids. His Facebook page has a great picture of the three of them playing guitar together, which I think says something about both Harley and his family. (Sorry, that’s all I’ll say about his kids. I generally don’t consider it appropriate to write about people’s families.)

Harley is clearly a true Grinnellian. Unfortunately, for reasons I am not equipped to comprehend, you can no longer find him in the bookstore. But you can still find him around Grinnell. If you meet him, ask him about Peter Coyote, or Scruffy the Cat, or about books, or about Iowa, or about his current novel. You’ll learn a lot, and have a great conversation.

Harley, don’t forget: I owe you a beer (or two, or more).

Version 1.1 of 2016-11-11.