If you're involved with art or music or writing in Chicago and keep at it for any length of time, odds are you'll meet everyone else involved sooner or later. I'd first met Jeremy Kitchen, the head librarian at the Chicago Public Library’s Richard J. Daley Branch and host of its semiregular Punk Rock and Donuts shows, a decade ago through the artist Tony Fitzpatrick. Last year, after a chance meeting at Jackalope Coffee in Bridgeport, not far from the library, he invited me to be a guest on his radio show Eye 94, which airs Sundays and Thursdays on Lumpen Radio, with monthly live shows at Pilsen Community Books.
Kitchen, who's 47, doesn't look like a stereotypical librarian. He's a tough-looking, tattooed guy who favors ballcaps and Hawaiian shirts in clashing Day-Glo patterns. He’s been a singer in several punk bands and is a gulf war vet. His unconventional path to becoming a librarian makes him well qualified to meet the needs of a public that is increasingly uninterested in traditional academic matters. He's able to reach those who aren't naturally bookish. If libraries have a role to play in our tech-besotted, forgetful age, we could do a lot worse than Kitchen as a guide.
Kitchen and his cohosts, Jamie Trecker and Mike Sack, had actually read my books before having me on the show, which put them in select company. Any attention a writer gets for his or her work is welcome, but it means that much more when an interviewer has done some homework. They asked me specific questions, and Shanna VanVolt's recorded readings added to the sense that they'd taken the time to consider my work, rather than just using it as a pretext to hear themselves speak.
"We read every book cover to cover," Kitchen tells me. "I think we are reading something like 2,000 pages this month."
Eye 94, named for I-94, the highway that connects Chicago and Detroit, where both Kitchen and Sack grew up, began in 2017. It's also a publishing venture: the hosts solicit original writing for their website.
The monthly tapings are lively and well attended. Recent events have featured authors like Anne Elizabeth Moore and Eve Ewing. Kitchen and company are able to be engaging and insightful without being pretentious or pedantic. The down-to-earth approach is Kitchen's calling card. Their next live show is March 29, with Michael Daley, author of Bobby BlueJacket: The Tribe, The Joint, The Tulsa Underworld.
Though Kitchen considers books a driving force in his life—he reads one or two a week—it took him some time to settle on the library as a career. Before that, he worked a number of what he described as "shit jobs": artillery observer in the army, worker in a flashlight factory, a brief stint at Whole Foods, social work.
"I wanted to do something that involved literature that was not teaching," he says. "I spent an inordinate time in libraries in my youth, and always loved the intellectual freedom that libraries entail. I got into punk to escape being a nerd. I learned very young that book dudes are not popular. That has changed somewhat, but in the early 80s in suburban Detroit that was not the case." He finally went back to library school at Dominican University, and when he graduated started working as a temp in a photo library. He started at CPL in 2000, at the Northtown branch in West Rogers Park.
When he became head librarian at the Daley branch about a decade ago, he decided to bring some of his past—like his time fronting punk bands like Night of the Hunter—to the job. Every few months bands like Wet Wallet, led by Keith Herzik (who also illustrates the Reader music column Gossip Wolf), take over a back room at his library for Punk Rock and Donuts. Many punk shows around town advertise themselves as all-ages, but few could boast of toddlers dancing around in the mosh pit—a regular sight at these Saturday concerts.
Kitchen started Punk Rock and Donuts after working on a project with the design firm IDEO, which led to a library conference in Aarhus, Denmark, and inspired him to create a nontraditional event at his own branch in Bridgeport. He partnered with January Overton and John Almonte of Jackalope Coffee; they supply the coffee and doughnuts at every show. The program has proved so popular that other branches have started having their own punk-rock shows, but Kitchen is quick to give credit to the CPL administration and his collaborators for its success.
Of course the primary mission of a librarian is to give his or her community access to information and culture. Kitchen is a positive, no-nonsense advocate for learning and knowledge. "A good librarian can sort out reliable sources, [which] is now of utmost importance in our political climate," he says. "We are bombarded with a 24-hour news cycle and, of course, social media. Most good librarians can sort out the bullshit and provide people with useful information." Kitchen assures me that e-books are decreasing in popularity and that interest in the old-fashioned paper-and-ink formats remains alive and well.
He's bullish about the neighborhood outside his library's doors too. It bears little resemblance to the inward-looking, exclusionary home base of Boss Daley, the man Kitchen's library is named after. Today's Bridgeport is an ever-shifting mix of older residents, art kids, and yuppies, with Chinatown making inroads for good measure. "I am friends with a lot of folks from both old and new Bridgeport," Kitchen says, "including police and a few of the Daleys, bikers, recovering alcoholics, artists, freaks, geeks, and punks, and I love them all." v