Chicago is going to be the center of the universe when it comes to books and authors the first week in June. Not only will publishers, authors, media, booksellers and everybody else associated with the book industry descend upon McCormick Convention Center for BookExpo America from June 2—6, but that weekend (June 5—6), book lovers from all over the Midwest will throng the streets of the South Loop for the 20th annual Printers Row Book Fair, sponsored for the second year by the Chicago Tribune.
The Printers Row Book Fair will be held on five tented blocks of South Dearborn between Congress and Polk, as well as at the Harold Washington Library Center. As always, there will be booksellers selling new, used and antiquarian books. There will also be author readings and signings, panel discussions, a writers' marketplace, poetry slams, children's programming, food and music. It's going to be quite a party—and a tempting "busman's holiday" for publishers and booksellers yearning for a break from the BEA's hustle and bustle.
According to Emily Cook, Chicago Tribune events producer and the fair's primary organizer for the last three years, this year there will be 120 vendors from all over the Midwest, plus a few hailing from New Mexico and from both the East and West coasts. More than 90,000 book lovers are expected to attend more than 90 literary programs scheduled throughout the weekend.
"Last year, every program was packed full, from local authors to the big names," Cook told PW. "We're expecting the same numbers this year—if not more, since it's the 20th anniversary—and we have a stellar lineup of authors."
Organizers try to reflect Chicago's demographics in selecting authors to participate in panels and readings at Printers Row. "We like to showcase Midwest authors while also bringing national authors to Printers Row. We like the mix," Cook said.
A Who's Who
As a result, the roster of authors scheduled to participate in the literary programming this year reads like a who's who of national literary heavyweights, hot new authors and regional favorites. They include Peter Mayle (A Good Year), Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler's Wife), Scott Turow (Ultimate Punishment), Diane Ackerman (An Alchemy of Mind), Alexandra Fuller (Scribbling the Cat), Ana Castillo (Peel My Love Like an Onion) and Alex Kotlowitz (Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago). And, although organizers may not have snagged Oprah Winfrey, they nabbed the next best person: her personal chef, Art Smith (Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family).
Cartoonist/playwright/writer Jules Feiffer will kick off the festivities this year with a talk. Feiffer is this year's recipient of the 16th annual Harold Washington Literary Award. The award, named for a former mayor of Chicago known for his passionate support of literacy endeavors, is bestowed upon an accomplished author for his or her body of work at a swanky banquet held at the Harold Washington Library Center a night or two before the book fair opens. The winner traditionally does the honors of opening the fair on Saturday morning. Past recipients include Isabel Allende, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Susan Sontag, Studs Terkel and Grace Paley.
Feiffer stood out in a field of strong nominees, said Donna Seaman, a Booklist editor and the chair of this year's award selection committee. "He's an interesting choice in an election year. He's such a seminal figure, with an enduring body of work. He's always responded to current events, making sense of everything that's going on, bringing humor to it all," she said.
Seaman considers him the perfect choice for a book fair that strives to appeal to a diverse community. "Choosing Feiffer for this year's award works on so many levels. He writes for all ages and people have been reading his work their entire lives."
Book Fair's History
The Printers Row Book Fair story is a tale of luck, pluck and just plain perseverance on the part of a few civic activists. More than 20 years ago, South Loop residents Bette Cerf Hill and Barbara Lynne brainstormed about ways to attract people to their slowly gentrifying neighborhood. Wanting to somehow transfer the romance of the book stalls located on the banks of the Seine in Paris to the mean streets of Chicago, the two leaders of the Burnham Park Planning Board (later renamed the Near South Planning Board) hit upon sponsoring a celebration of books en plein air.
"This was an area going from derelict and dangerous to interesting, with market-rate housing. We wanted to do something completely different," Hill recalled. "Books seemed to be a natural, as this was Printers Row, a neighborhood in which books had been made. A book fair would bring people to the area and celebrate the nature of the neighborhood."
The first Miami Book Fair International had been held the year before. Hill and Lynne contacted fair organizers there for assistance. Hill laughed as she recalled, "We were told that Miami had a $350,000 budget to start with. I remember thinking, 'We have 35 cents.' " In reality, Hill and Lynne raised $19,000 in six months to fund the first book fair.
The first Printers Row Book Fair was held on a single block of South Dearborn the third weekend in June 1985. That first year, 41 vendors of primarily used and antiquarian books, with a sprinkling of new booksellers, participated. The event attracted about 6,500 people.
"For what it was, it was pretty successful," Hill told PW. "Booksellers were reluctant to come out, so we promised to give them tarps if it rained. And the only reason we took up an entire city block—which, if you know Chicago, that's a long city block—is that we spaced the booths way apart."
Since its humble beginnings 20 years ago, the Printers Row Book Fair has grown steadily. By the end of the decade, the fair attracted 30,000 visitors. In the mid '90s, fair organizers reported 75,000 visitors each year. Last year, 90,000 visited the fair.
Brad Jonas, owner of Powell's Books in Chicago, has sold books at Printers Row every year since its beginning. He noted that the annual event has, over the years, become a Chicago institution. "It's grown up internally. Local authors, local booksellers, local publishers have always been part of this book fair. There've been unknowns who started off here, handselling their books, like the When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple lady [Jenny Joseph]. Some of these people later became national names. People come, and they're interested in new reads, new authors—someone they've never heard of, someone they want to discover."
Jonas describes Printers Row as a community celebration. "It's a festival. Reading books is a solitary thing. Getting outside, talking books, going to readings brings together these people and creates a sense of community of people who take books seriously, either as object or as literature. That cross-fertilization creates such great energy, year after year," he told PW.
Printers Row really hit the big time when, in November 2002, the Chicago Tribune bought the book fair from the Near South Planning Board. The newspaper's parent company, the Tribune Company, owns the Los Angeles Times, which sponsors the fabulously successful Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held on the UCLA campus each spring since 1996. "We had to do something. The book fair was becoming too much for the Planning Board," Hill recalled. "The fair had become bigger than the organization."
The Chicago Tribune's purchase of the book fair was part of the newspaper's ongoing efforts to boost literacy and literary endeavors in the region. After all, Owen Youngman, Chicago Tribune v-p of development, declared at the time, "We don't have much of a business if people can't read."
Although Hill was initially apprehensive about selling the fair to a corporation, less than two years later, she is full of compliments for the smooth way the Chicago Tribune ran it last year, the first full year the newspaper was in charge. "I am extremely happy—like my kid has married well. I'm very pleased. I think they're being careful to keep the flavor of the fair. It's always been a free spirit, and they're conscious of that."
Jonas echoed Hill's sentiments. "The Tribune did not buy Printers Row to change it—they bought it to improve it. And they have; they've tried hard to walk a balance—not losing the local flavor while adding more national authors."
Stuart Dybek, who participated in the first Printers Row as an unknown writer, is appearing at this year's event. This time though, he's a celebrity and the author of Coast of Chicago, chosen for this year's "One Book, One Chicago" program. "In the past 20 years, this town has become aware of its cultural resources," Dybek said. "I'm not the only author who's benefited from this. And it's due in large part to Printers Row accelerating the process. Printers Row has always been more than simply a book fair, it's an essential part of Chicago's very dynamic cultural life."