Chicago 101: Lit | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Lit Feature

Chicago 101: Lit

Local publishers, events, and bookstores



THOUGH CHICAGO MAY lack the industrial infrastructure of a publishing powerhouse like New York, there’s a lot going on here if you know where to look. Home to two respected university presses (at the University of Chicago and Northwestern) and established operations like Chicago Review Press and the Afrocentric Third World Press—which had a breakout hit this year with the Tavis Smiley project The Covenant With Black America—Chicago’s seen a surge of publishing activity in the last few years from upstarts like Evanston-based Agate Publishing, Punk Planet Books (an offshoot of Punk Planet magazine), and OV Books (from the literary journal Other Voices). Locally published journals like Another Chicago Magazine, Make, and the broadsheet The2ndHand are regular outlets for short fiction and creative nonfiction. And after philanthropist Ruth Lilly dropped a $175 million bomb on tiny Poetry magazine in 2003, the Poetry Foundation became one of the largest literary foundations in the world and amped up its activities accordingly. On September 29 the organization brings Pulitzer winner Mark Strand to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Hands down the biggest literary shindig of the year is the Printers Row Book Fair, where 100,000 bibliophiles descend on South Dearborn Street, the heart of the city’s historic printing district (in 2007 it’s June 9 and 10). Booksellers peddle their wares while a mess of author appearances, panel discussions, book signings, and kids’ programming add to the general commotion. A little more highbrow, but no less popular, the Chicago Humanities Festival brings a host of writers and thinkers to town each fall for two weeks of intensive intellectual activity, with panels, talks, film screenings, and performances organized around an overarching theme. This year’s festival, “Peace and War,” starts October 28; look for the Reader’s guides to both festivals in Section 2.

Want to get out and throw down with other book nerds? Both local and touring authors pop up regularly at the bookstores (see below), but if literary events are your thing, there are plenty of lively alternatives—though to attend many of them you need to be 21 or older. The Reader’s Readings & Lectures listings in Section 2 has a complete rundown of what’s happening around town each week.

Once a month or so, Bookslut editor Jessa Crispin ( entices three or four writers to an upstairs room at the Hopleaf Bar (5148 N. Clark, 773-334-9851); a few weeks ago a crowd of 30 quaffed Belgian brews from the bar’s extensive beer list as novelist Pagan Kennedy and others read from new work by the light of the vintage jukebox; coming up on the 27th are Ned Vizzini, Brian Evenson, and Cristina Henriquez. The monthly Sunday Salon Chicago series takes over the homey (and nonsmoking) confines of the Charleston (2076 N. Hoyne, 773-489-4757) on the last Sunday of the month; reading on the 24th are Megan Stielstra, L.C. Fiore, and David Treuer. For the popular Dollar Store series (, cohosts Jonathan Messinger, who also runs the fledgling Featherproof Books, and comedian Jeremy Sosenko challenge their guests of honor to write an original short story based on random items picked up at a dollar store. Participants take the stage at the Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433) on the first Friday of every month to read the results to an appreciative, PBR-gripping crowd. A bit to the north, the series RUI: Reading Under the Influence ( tweaks the bar-and-bibliophiles formula even further: every month the organizers pick a theme (this month it was labor; October’s is love/hate) and writers gather at Sheffield’s (3258 N. Sheffield, 773-281-4989) to read from their own work and that of a famous author, pelting the audience with trivia questions about the famous one. Shots are done, prizes are won. On the poetry front, things can get just as rowdy: Chicago is, after all, the birthplace of slam poetry, and Marc Smith’s Uptown Poetry Slam, the granddaddy of them all, is still going strong every Sunday night at the legendary Green Mill cocktail lounge and jazz club (4802 N. Broadway, 773-878-5552). The long-running Danny’s Reading Series, at Danny’s Tavern (1951 W. Dickens, 773-489-6457) in Bucktown, draws from local and national talent to present a pair of poets on the third Wednesday of every month. And on the same night, over at the California Clipper (1002 N. California, 773-384-2547) in Humboldt Park, the multicultural Guild Complex hosts the bilingual Palabra Pura poetry series (the Guild Complex hosts a prose series at the same venue on the first Wednesday of the month).

As elsewhere, the big chains dominate the retail market, but a cadre of indies keep the scene lively. Barbara’s Bookstore moved its flagship store from Old Town to spacious new digs in the University Village development south of UIC in 2004. The UIC store (1218 S. Halsted, 312-413-2665) and its twin in Oak Park (1100 Lake, 708-848-9140) are regular stops on the literary touring circuit, with recent appearances by Andrew Vachss, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jennifer Egan, to name a few. Up in Andersonville, Women and Children First (5233 N. Clark, 773-769-9299) carries an extensive stock of—surprise—books of particular interest to women, from fiction to feminist theory, and children. The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square (4736 N. Lincoln, 773-293-2665) does double duty as a wine bar and cozy cafe. Lakeview’s Unabridged Books (3251 N. Broadway, 773-883-9119) is distinguished by its informed staff recommendations and a large selection of gay and lesbian titles—though the store carries a lot of general interest titles as well.

In Hyde Park, you can get lost for hours in the warrenlike basement that houses the venerable Seminary Co-op Bookstore (5757 S. University, 773-752-4381), whose shelves groan with new titles from university presses and other special interest publishers. Two blocks away its sibling 57th Street Books (1301 E. 57th, 773-684-1300) carries literature, general interest nonfiction, and children’s books—and is another active venue for author appearances. The Newberry Library(60 W. Walton, 312-255-3520) is home to the third of the co-op’s outposts, the A.C. McClurg Bookstore, specializing in history, cartography, geography, calligraphy, and other subjects relevant to the library’s holdings.

Quimby’s (1854 W. North, 773-342-0910) in Wicker Park is one of the country’s—if not the world’s— best sources for zines, comics, small press books, vintage erotica, and all manner of subcultural effluvia. It also hosts frequent readings and events that could have you snuggled up against the gay porn next month to hear from vintage Japanese baseball card collector John Gall (Sayonara Home Run!) and Iranian-via-Parisian comics artist Marjane Satrapi (Chicken With Plums). Over on Milwaukee, Myopic Books (1564 N. Milwaukee, 773-862-4882) has a a vertiginous floor-to-ceiling stash of merch that can render the most hardcore used-book junkie placid and happy. They’ll buy your old books too (details at

Powell’s Bookstore—the progenitor of the legendary store in Portland, Oregon—has three outposts in Chicago. The Hyde Park shop (1501 E. 57th, 773-955-7780) specializes in used scholarly books covering the spectrum of academic disciplines; the Lakeview store (2850 N. Lincoln, 773-248- 1444) carries a lot of fiction, art, architecture, and photography, and includes a rare books room; the South Loop location (825 S. Wabash, 312-341-0748) is the retail warehouse and, in their words, stocks “a little bit of everything.” The Lakeview Powell’s is also home to the Powell’s North Reading Series, a monthly event pairing an established author or poet with one or two emerging writers. Then there are the specialty stores—everything from the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop (357 W. Chicago, 312-944-3085), purveyors of Civil War porn, to the New Agey Transitions Bookplace (1000 W. North, 312-951-7323), which presents psychedelic proselytizer Daniel Pinchbeck on September 26. The Prairie Avenue Bookshop (418 S. Wabash, 800-474-2724) is a famous resource for books on architecture and design.

Rare book dealers range from Bookman’s Alley in Evanston (1712 Sherman, 847-869-6999) to O’Gara and Wilson in Hyde Park (1448 E. 57th, 773-363-0993). And don’t forget the libraries: the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S. State, 312-747-4300) and the Sulzer Regional Library (4455 N. Lincoln, 312-744-7616) are both hubs of literary activity—not to mention an obvious, if under-appreciated, source of free reading material.

And speaking of free reading matter: if you had any lingering doubts that literary culture was alive and well in Chicago, look closely around the sidewalks of Logan Square, where this summer one enterprising citizen filled a Reader honor box with used books, painted “Community Book Exchange” on the side, and in a flash founded the littlest library in town.

A Chicago Library

A selection of some but not all not-to-be-missed Chicago books, with apologies to Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March), Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie), James T. Farrell (the Studs Lonigan trilogy), Studs Terkel (Division Street), and a multitude of other contenders.

American Project: The Rise and Fall of an American Ghetto | Sudhir Venkatesh | As a U. of C. sociology grad student, Venkatesh spent almost ten years doing research in the Robert Taylor Homes to create a nuanced portrait of life in the public housing development.

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago | Mike Royko | It doesn’t get much better than this: Royko’s classic, withering account of the career of King Richard the First.

The Coast of Chicago | Stuart Dybek | Lyrical short stories that combine to create an intimate tour of the ethnic south side.

Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse | Steve Bogira | An unprecedented look by Reader staff writer Bogira at how the American judicial system, in the form of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse, works—and doesn’t.

Crossing California | Adam Langer | A former Reader contributor’s wry take on growing up Jewish in the 70s in West Rogers Park.

The Devil in the White City | Erik Larson | Justly acclaimed historical fiction weaving together the stories of architect and city planner Daniel Burnham and serial killer H.H. Holmes, set against the backdrop of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race | Gary Rivlin | The definitive chronicle of Chicago politics in the tumultuous 70s, by a former Reader staffer.

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago | Eric Klinenberg | A dissection of the social and political conditions that led to the deaths of hundreds of people during the heat wave of 1995.

The Jungle | Upton Sinclair | Muckracking 1906 novel that blew the lid off the inhuman working conditions of the Chicago stockyards and inspired lasting political change. Not for the squeamish.

The Man With the Golden Arm | Nelson Algren | Dark classic about poverty and addiction that offers a gritty look at West Division Street and its denizens long before Mirai Sushi moved in.

Native Son | Richard Wright | Powerful and brutal, a landmark indictment of racism and social injustice in midcentury Chicago.

Nowhere Man | Aleksandar Hemon | Through his fictional alter ego Chicago’s most famous Bosnian sketches the immigrant experience in Uptown in hilarious, painful detail.

There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America | Alex Kotlowitz | Controversial true story of two brothers growing up in the Henry Horner Homes that’s become required reading for both urban journalists and children’s welfare wonks.

The Time Traveler’s Wife | Audrey Niffenegger | Full of shout-outs to Chicago sites like the Riv and the Newberry Library, this breakout 2003 novel by printmaker and book arts teacher Niffenegger is both an intricately structured fantasy and a three-hankie love story. | MB

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →