Printers Row Lit Fest embraces Chicago’s writers

Printers Row Lit Fest has been bringing all things literary to the streets of the Printers Row neighborhood for 37 years. The festivities return for the second weekend of September with a packed schedule of events

The festival is many things to many people: a homage to the publishing industry, a shopping spree for book lovers, a postable feast for Bookstagrammers, and perhaps, above all, a place for publishers, journalists, writers, poets, and agents to hobnob. Specifically, it is the place for any writer in the midwest to see and be seen, or, better yet, hear and be heard. 

Two days of live events, spoken word, readings, workshops, and panel discussions will wash over the brawny former industrial zone, and over 100 booksellers will line the streets with their tents full of actual paper books as the last cicada chirps of summer fade. Best of all, the programming is free! What could be more inviting than that? Perhaps a mere dash of sweater weather and a nicely positioned coffee truck on Polk Street could tip it into a rom-com paradise? 

If you plan to stroll the outdoor festival and take advantage of the book stalls and writers events, take a moment to cast your eyes skyward to see some of the historic architecture as well. Nestled in the South Loop, most of the old printer buildings have been converted into fancy lofts and shops. But you can still see some remnants of Chicago’s printing hub glory days (which peaked in the 1880s) in the architecture. The Franklin building (720 S. Dearborn) features a mural of the Gutenberg Bible being printed and tiles of bookbinders and printers along the building’s facade. 

The entire area is so unique that it has landed on the National Register of Historic Places and the “Printing House Row Historic District” is listed as a National Historic Landmark. Stroll over to the Printers Row Park fountain and community garden (0.38 acres of greenery hidden in the Loop at 632 S. Dearborn) and find a moment of rest in this discreet nod to the area’s printing history, featuring concrete benches resembling printers’s blocks and a kaleidoscopic fountain that would make Frank Lloyd Wright blush postmortem. If you need to escape the elements all together, you might wander into Sandmeyer’s Bookstore (714 S. Dearborn) for an authentic vibe and browse the many titles on display (since 1982).

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Printers Row Lit Fest juggles over 100 author appearances and coordinates entertainment for all echelons of the publishing industry—from the romance writer to the political activist—while also providing programming for children (including a Latin American-style puppet show in Spanish and English presented by Carlos Theatre Productions). As of this writing, a full schedule of the weekend’s events had not yet been released, but a steady stream of updates is available at the festival’s Instagram (@printersrowfest). 

Printers Row Lit FestSat 9/10-Sun 9/11, 10 AM-6 PM, S. Dearborn from Ida B. Wells Dr. to Polk and Polk from State to Clark, free, full schedule at printersrowlitfest.org

Even without the full timeline to pour over, the established highlights of this year’s Printers Row Lit Fest are enough to entice a crowd. The emphasis on recognizing Chicago writers is strong and also includes diverse voices who focus on social justice and activism. Danyel Smith,the first Black editor of Billboard magazine, will talk about her recent book Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop. Jamie Ford will discuss his current New York Times bestseller The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, and the Emcee Skool organization will leada spoken word workshop and open mike

The festival does not give short shrift to Chicago’s journalists or satirists; perhaps the best known amplifiers of social justice personages and causes in Chicago. The Sun-Times and WBEZ will host a series of panels reflecting on two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a conversation between Dr. David Ansell (author of The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills) and Dr. Thomas Fisher (author of The Emergency: A Year of Healing and Heartbreak in a Chicago ER).

The Chicago Public Librarywill host “Voices for Justice: Natalie Moore’s The Billboard,” including a staged reading of excerpts from Moore’s play. The Sun-Times also hosts an in-person episode of their series The Environmental Justice Exchange dedicated to Hazel M. Johnson. Johnson started a movement when she noticed that her neighbors on the south side were suffering from physical ailments associated with pollution, toxins, and poor living conditions, and founded People for Community Recovery in 1979 to advocate for environmental justice. The Sun-Times and Chicago Public Media also host a discussion titled “Social Justice in Chicago: The Mexican Community’s Fight to Stay in the City” hosted by Elvia Malagón (a Sun-Times reporter focusing on social justice topics) with guestMike Amezcua, author of Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification.

Other featured journalists at Lit Fest include Neil Steinberg on his book Every Goddamn Day: a Highly Selective, Definitely Opinionated, and Alternatingly Humorous and Heartbreaking Historical Tour of ChicagoandRay Long on The House that Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer.

Our city’s library pulls its weight at the festival, bestowing their prestigiousHarold Washington Literary Award to Evanston-based Natasha Trethewey (Pulitzer Prize winner and two-term United States Poet Laureate).

The Poetry Foundation is setting up a dedicated poetry tent (on North Dearborn, just south of Ida B. Wells) that will be hosting a stream of emerging and award-winning poets. On Saturday at 2 PM, a panel titled“Our City: Chicago’s Poetic Landscape” will be moderated by scholar Carlo Rotella. Panelists include Daniel Bortzutzky, Ugochi Nwaogwugwu, Elise Paschen, and Sara Salgado. 

Of course, works of fiction set in Chicago will be highlighted at Lit Fest, such as Toya Wolfe’s Last Summer on State Street, Joe Meno’sBook of Extraordinary Tragedies, andthe Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago”honoree Eric Charles May (Bedrock Faith). Multiple authors whose books have recently been reviewed by the Reader recently will be present, notably Adam Levin (Mount Chicago) and Adam Langer (Cyclorama).

Fitting examples of Chicago’s outspoken heritage of audience participation and spoken word are rampant at Lit Fest. Some excellent samplings include a Literary Death Match,where four local authors will verbally duel each other in front of a panel of judges. Winners from the Moth live storytelling competition will read their work. An exciting skillshare with the public will occur as staff from The Onion will workshop writing satirical news stories (scheduled for the festival’s main stage on Saturday at 3 PM). 

Printers Row Lit Fest is one of Chicago’s core city triumphs. It’s as Chicago as the Bud Billiken parade and as eternal as a zine-filled Quimby’s Bookstore. If you attend, you’ll be part of the Chicago literary scene! Welcome to the glitterati.

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