Without BEA in Chicago for piggyback promotion, 15-year-old fair still plots for a successful outing.

On a sh string budget 14 years ago, the Printers Row Book Fair set up camp on a tiny one-block parcel in Chicago's historic south loop neighborhood. Founders Bette Cerf Hill and Barbara Lynne had no experience in the bookselling community, but they had a vision of a book fair that might help revitalize the tired district that once played home to countless turn-of-the-century printing juggernauts.

Today, the Printers Row Book Fair is gearing up for its 15th anniversary -- now one of the largest book fair in the entire Midwest. And the neighborhood, thanks in large part to the efforts of Hill and Lynne, is one of the Windy City's hottest places to live. Loft apartments inhabit most of the old printing press buildings, and retail shops have popped up like spring tulips.

In 1985, when the fair started, the founding duo managed to raise $19,000 to fund their two-day event, which, as they had envisioned, included booksellers of new and used books, antiquarian dealers and a melange of literary programming that reflected the diverse cultural fabric of Chicago. The first year of the Printers Row Book Fair included 42 booksellers and drew 5000 attendees. In 1998, by comparison, the event had a total operating budget of $199,000, included 178 booksellers and drew a monstrous 70,000 people. For Hill and Lynne, their fairy-tale dream had become a reality.

"When we started," said Hill, "we didn't have a clue as to what we were doing. People would tell us, `Well, Miami has a great book fair with a $350,000 budget.' In the first year, Printers Row had $3.50," she told PW and laughed.

In 1989, the fair established the Harold Washington Literary Award, named for the late mayor of Chicago, an avid reader and the driving force behind the construction of the stunning neoclassic Chicago Public Library just north of Printers Row -- a library that today bears Washington's name. The Harold Washington Literary Award is given out the night before each Printers Row Book Fair, in recognition of an author's body of work. Past recipients have included Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury and, last year's winner, Joseph Epstein. At press time, this year's top candidates have been narrowed down to a top-secret three. According to Hill and Lynne, the recipient will be announced shortly.

But the Printers Row Book Fair, as Hill and Lynne will tell you, is much more than award ceremonies, growing budgets and ballooning attendance. "It's a celebration of books and literary arts," noted Lynne, the executive director of the Near South Planning Board, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the revitalization of Chicago's near south side.

As part of the plan to keep the Printers Row Book Fair expanding in both size and programming, Hill and Lynne farmed the Miami Book Fair International, where they found Mary Davis Fournier, the author-liaison and cultural programming assistant for the MBFI. Fournier joined Printers Row in February 1998 as the fair's program director. While the event itself runs a mere 48 hours, Fournier labors the entire year in preparation for the enterprise. But this year, Fournier must contend with the absence of BookExpo America, which has coincided with the Printers Row event for the past four years. No BEA poses several challenges to Fournier, while also granting a few benefits.

"Without BookExpo, it may be a little harder to get authors for our literary programming," Fournier observed. "Also, the Chicago media put more of an emphasis on bookselling that weekend because of BEA." But now, with BookExpo heading west to Los Angeles for its '99 show, Printers Row is on its own.

"The BEA comes and g s," said Hill. "Sure, I'm worried that we won't get such wonderful authors to read at the fair because BEA isn't in Chicago, but I'm hoping that by now our 15 years means something, so that people will come to the fair regardless of BookExpo."

Brad Jonas, a member of the fair's planning committee since the beginning and owner of three Chicago-area Powell's bookstores, ech d Hill's concerns but added that the absence of BookExpo creates something positive, too. "We can now get some booksellers, who have had their energy connected to BEA, to focus on the book fair," Jonas explained.

Even with the predicted shortage of authors, Fournier is optimistic that the literary programming -- one of the fair's strong suits -- will be impressive. It is Fournier's daunting challenge to schedule the myriad of children's programs, author and publisher panels and musical events. This year, the fair coincides with Chicago's popular Blues Fest in Grant Park. In 1998, Blues Fest attracted 660,000 people.

"We are going to have cross-programming with the Blues Fest this year," Fournier told PW. "We will have blues musicians playing on the book fair's main stage, and we will also have a panel that will be comprised of blues historians." She continued, "The blues is a very lyrical, literary musical genre and ties in well to the fair. Blues and books feed the soul."

The book fair's programming will be listed in the Blues Fest Guide, handed out in the 323-acre Grant Park, and Fournier is working with the Mayor's Office of Special Events to coordinate trolley service from the fest to the fair.Coincidentally, the book fair and the blues fest occurred simultaneously in 1985, the fair's first season. But much has changed since then. The fair has expanded from one block to five, and this year the number of booksellers involved could well top 200.

"I'm still not satisfied," Hill said, however. "We can do a lot more. We'd like to appeal to the very large Hispanic literary community. We want to place even more emphasis on p try. But it's not just about getting bigger. We want to make the brew richer."

For Hill and Lynne, there's still plenty of work to do, but perhaps they will take a little time out to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Printers Row Book Fair.

The Printers Row Book Fair will be held Saturday and Sunday, June 5-6, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in historic Printers Row. For further information, call (312) 987-9896.