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Reading in Public: Seasonal Menus and Social Advocacy


Linzi Murray is the founder and owner of Reading in Public, a bookstore and cafe located in West Des Moines, Iowa. Murray drew on her graphic design background and her lifelong love of reading in order to build the beautiful and welcoming shop she has today. Reading in Public recently passed its one year anniversary, so Murray sat down with me to discuss her inspiration, operation, and the challenges she faced along the way.Linzi Murray, founder of Reading in Public smiles in front of a pink background.

Though Murray had her roots in Des Moines, she and her husband were living in Brooklyn when the pandemic hit in 2020 and planted the seed that would become Reading in Public. 

“Living in Brooklyn during the pandemic showed me how indispensable indies were in my life,” Murray told me. “Books are Magic, The Center for Fiction, Three Lives & Co, McNally Jackson — with bookstores suddenly inaccessible, I felt like a piece of myself was severed.”

In an effort to keep connecting with other book lovers despite the pandemic isolation, Murray started the Instagram @abookishendeavor, and filled it with photos of herself reading in public all over Brooklyn. After just a few months, she realized she could open her own bookstore.

“Once the idea of opening my own bookstore took root during the summer, I knew our time in Brooklyn was nearing its end. I always knew I'd return to Des Moines eventually (where I went to college and met my husband), and opening a bookstore was a compelling enough reason to get us back there when we did,” Murray recalled.

They packed up, returned to Des Moines, and found a location for her bookshop. 

Today, Reading in Public is one of the few Asian American-owned bookstores in the Midwest. It’s located in Historic Valley Junction, and cultivates a modern and inviting aesthetic. The shop carries new books in all genres and is also home to a cafe.

In addition to standard cafe options, every season the shop introduces an original seasonal menu. Drinks from this spring’s menu include options like Guava Breeze (guava tea with strawberry), Meet Your Matcha (matcha with blueberry syrup), and Thorn This Way (white chocolate with rose syrup). 

“Our seasonal menus are a collaborative effort among the barista team, with occasional interjections from me,” Murray explained. “I usually have one idea I'd like to include (like Cookie Butter Hot Chocolate for our Winter menu last year), but largely, I urge the baristas to experiment, be creative, and have fun.”

Reading in Public also operates with an “emphasis on mental health and social advocacy.” 

“We aim to make abundantly clear that Reading in Public is a source of acceptance, non-judgment, and empathy,” Murray said. 

This commitment is clear from the carefully curated collection and books lists, to the “Read Books and Be Kind to People” motto on the store wall and merchandise. But most importantly, it's clear in the organizations Murray partners with.

“Community partnerships are a central focus for us as they allow us to live out our intention of contributing toward a most just, free, and equitable community for all,” she explained. “We have proudly partnered with the Iowa Abortion Access Fund, Planned Parenthood, the Des Moines Pride Center, and Monsoon Asians and Pacific Islanders in Solidarity, to name a few.”

Another big opportunity for connection is farmer’s market season in Des Moines.

“Our store is in a historic, main street shopping district that hosts a farmers market on Thursday evenings from May to September. This always draws big crowds and the energy those nights are always a delight!”

Having completed their first year of operation with a strong brand and thriving partnerships, I was curious to hear what challenges Murray has faced along the way. 

She revealed one particular challenge she struggled with: being a boss. Prior to opening Reading in Public, Murray had been a freelance graphic designer and had never had to manage people before. 

“The learning curve was steep and often isolating,” she recalled. “All I had was my instincts and determination to learn. What was key for me was to accept — welcome, even — the inevitability of making mistakes, giving myself grace, and extracting the lessons so that I could be better.”

Now, Murray is looking to the future. 

“In my dreamiest imaginings, I'd love to be a Midwestern, McNally Jackson-like operation, where I own several locations, all with distinctly different personalities and focuses,” she said. 

But in the meantime, she plans to continue expanding Reading in Public’s partnerships as time goes on, and hopes to become “an advocate for equity and empathy in [her] community.” In fact, another such partnership is on the horizon.

Reading in Public will be working with Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and Heather Cox Richardson for their “biggest book event to date.”

If you’re in the Des Moines area, stop by Reading in Public to take in the atmosphere and a seasonal drink! You can also visit the shop’s website, or follow them on Facebook and Instagram to learn more. 

Rows of low bookshelves lead to a counter with cash registers in front of a pale pink wall. A white neon sign in the wall says "Reading in Public."
Photo credits: Reading in Public