June 22, 2012 by Ray Yanek
Uh, actually, the book festival was a week or two ago, so I am a little late in talking about it. I had a great time at the festival and I really wanted to talk about it, so forgive my tardiness.
I first attended the Printer’s Row Lit Festival a couple of years ago when I was (rather creepishly now that I think about it) attending every book signing mystery writer Michael Connelly did within driving distance of my home. That year, Connelly was speaking at a ticketed event sponsored by the festival. The tickets were free, there was no cost for the festival, and I was rather fond of all things bookish, so I figured I would take a ride.
Glad I did, because I’ve taken a ride back every summer since.
The Printer’s Row neighborhood of Chicago stretches south from the Chicago Public Library to the Dearborn Station. Lofts and apartments now fill the earth-tone, brick buildings that once housed Chicago’s publishing companies.
During Lit Fest, tents pack the streets between the buildings. Under those tents are books, lots of books—old books smelling of dust, new books with crisp pages, and boxes of paper backs running the conditional gamut from mint to well-loved. Fiction of every genre abounds. Non-fiction is everywhere. You’ll find books of poetry, cook-books, manuals, self-help guides. Basically, if something has been printed, there is a good chance you can find it under those tents. These are generally bargain books, though. Unless the author is speaking and signing, you won’t find many new books. It’s 3-for-10 hardback sales, dollar paperbacks and things of that sort. It’s the kind of place where you dig and rummage, browse and explore in search of treasure.
It’s the kind of place where you find that book you wanted to read last year, but forgot all about. It’s also the place where you find an independent author who may become your new favorite.
And there are more than books. Over 200 authors attended the festival to sign and read and speak. Local writing groups such as the Tallgrass Writer’s Guild, the Dupage Country Writing Group and the Beverly Arts Center come to talk about their groups and share their literary magazines. The Mystery Writer’s of America have a tent, with seemingly never fewer than five or six authors behind the tables. You can buy baseball jerseys to support the Stratford Globes and their ace Will Shakespeare.
You’ll also find some art for sale, performances by youth groups, graphic novels (thankfully a lot more of these over the past couple of years), a children’s section, a book signing area, more tents where authors on hand give talks. There is tent for cooking demonstrations. Chicago celebrity chef Rick Bayless cooked there Saturday and Rachel Ray was one this year’s headlining “authors”.
Among the tents and the books, crowds of people sweat under the June sun and lug backpacks full of books. This year, an estimated 130,000 people attended the festival. Often, you’re forced to look for books over someone’s shoulder. If you want something, you have to wedge yourself between the tattoed woman with piercings and the man wearing a fedora to cover his stately gray head.
In short, there is a lot.
Because of the heat and the fact that my wife and I take our two children to the festival (and I’m proud to say my kids are starting to haul back more books than I do) we only go for a couple hours, usually on the Saturday. It’s not enough time. Not nearly enough. Traditionally, I leave with that nagging feeling that I missed something, that there was one more person I should have talked too, one more business card I should have taken, one more stack of books I should have excavted.
I love that feeling. It’s yet another reason to come back next year. And next year, I tell myself, I won’t miss a damn thing.
So next summer, if you live near Chicago and you like books, go to Printer’s Row. If you don’t live near Chicago then the Chicago Tribune has also began publishing The Printer’s Row Journal that the paper describes as a “a new membership society for book lovers. The centerpiece is a weekly journal that includes author profiles, book reviews and Printers Row Fiction in a separate booklet. Members also get exclusive access to author visits and events at Printers Row Lit Fest.” It’s a subscription service, running $149 a year, which is a little steep for me. But if you’re interested, you can find an online version of the first issue here.