Every year in early June, several city blocks in the South Loop in Chicago are blocked off, and dozens of booksellers set up tents and booths to show off their new, old, rare, common, uncommon, hardcover, paperback, fiction, non-fiction, and every other kind of book that you can think of. It’s a book-lover’s dream, and one of my favorite events every year. This year, it falls on June 10-11.
The Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago began as a bookseller fair in the 1980s, but it has grown into the largest literary event in the Midwest. Thrown each year by the Chicago Tribune, the Printers Row Lit Fest is a great way to spend a summer weekend and refill your bookshelves. Every year, they bring in major literary names and some of the best chefs in Chicago, host writing workshops, and have plenty of programming for kids. There are block and blocks of booths of new, used, and antiquarian books, as well as some book-related crafts, like gorgeous hand-tooled leather notebooks. There are bookish t-shirts, Chicago paraphernalia, and more.
The festival is in the Printers Row neighborhood, which, if you can’t tell from the name, is where all the printers and publishers in Chicago used to be centered. There are still a few booksellers and printers permanently in the area, so make sure you keep an eye out for them. Watch out for the printers block sculptures, which act as benches in Printers Row Park.
One of the best ways to experience the fest is as a volunteer, plus, you get a t-shirt. My first time attending the fest, I volunteered as an author escort, which meant I walked authors from their rendezvous spot to their event location. (I walked a pre-Gone Girl Gillian Flynn down the road, along with a handful of other Chicago-based thriller authors. It was awesome.) Volunteer opportunities are still available if you apply here.
Get to the Fest
The fest is about a 10 minute walk from the Harold Washington Library, and the Brown, Orange, Purple, and Pink Lines all stop there. The Red Line Harrison stop is about a block from the fest. Chicago buses #2, #6, #10, #29 and #146 stop at Clark and Polk. There are some places to park around the Fest, but be aware you’ll be paying premium prices for all-day parking. Street parking is almost impossible to find. (Information taken from the PRLF website. See a map here.) If you’re coming from the suburbs and lucky enough to live on the southside, the Rock Island LaSalle Street Station is only a few blocks from the Fest. It’s a pleasant 30-or-so-minute walk from Ogilvie.
Find Your Way Around
As you enter the Fest, be sure to grab a program and map near the entrance. They are large newsprint schedules with interviews with some of the high-profile authors, plus a map.
The booksellers stalls and event tents span several city blocks, and many of the schedule sessions are in tents along the way, but events also take place in Hotel Blake, at the Harold Washington Library, and at Jones College Prep school. It can take a little longer to walk to these venues, so make sure you take note of where your event is scheduled.
Stay Fed (and Hydrated!)
While there is a food tent at the Fest, that is really more for cooking demonstrations. (Why are there cooking demonstrations at a Lit Fest? Because Chicagoans love their food, and cookbooks are totally a thing. So are, like, books about puppies, but there’s no puppy tent at the Fest. I’m looking at you, Fest Organizers.) If you want to sit down for lunch, there are a handful of brunch places and bars around the perimeter of the fest, but they are typically packed. I recommend grabbing a quick burger at Standing Room Only or a sandwich at Potbelly’s and getting back to the fest. If you’re willing to leave the fest and walk a few blocks east to State Street, Epic Burger and Spanglish Mexican Kitchen are both solid, inexpensive options. If you’re looking for coffee, there is a Starbucks adjacent to the Fest, but it is so crowded that I’ve honestly never even attempted to go there during the Fest. There is an Intelligentsia Coffee about two blocks north in the Monadnock Building on Jackson. Now, here is my greatest tip, and you gotta promise not to spread this one around: if you’re looking for a clean bathroom, head to the Panera on Congress and State. They’re one of the few businesses open in that part of the Loop if you arrive early in the morning, and a great place to re-group.
See Great Panels
There are dozens of panels and demonstrations to check out, so make sure you look at the Printers Row Lit Fest’s full schedule. Two of the main programs (with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Senator Al Franken) are ticked, and the tickets cost $35. Purchase your tickets here. The other events are first come first serve, but you can guarantee yourself a seat by reserving a ticket here.
Not sure what to check out? Here’s a quick round-up of some of the best panels (and yes, I did include the two that come with free coffee). This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a small sampling. Check out the full schedule, reserve your spot, and be open to changing your plans once you make it to the fest.
- Coffee with columnist John Kass; Coffee provided by Intelligentsia Coffee (free coffee!)
- Wise and Witty: Samantha Irby, Scaachi Koul and Jenny Allen in conversation with Tricia Bobeda
- Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize winner David Levithan in conversation with Heidi Stevens Introduced by Bruce Dold
- Hidden Truths: Megan Abbott and Jennifer Finney Boylan
- Fiction: Romance: Faith, Hope and Love: Elizabeth Boyle, Lorraine Heath and Sarah MacLean moderated by Stacy St. Clair
- The Making of a President: Abraham Lincoln: Sidney Blumenthal in conversation with Elizabeth Taylor
- U.S. Senator Al Franken, author of “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” in conversation with Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Bruce Dold; Introduced by Marcia Lythcott
- Coffee with columnists Eric Zorn and Mary Schmich; Coffee provided by Intelligentsia Coffee (more free coffee!)
- American Radicals Fighting for Their Ideals: Jeremy McCarter in conversation with Aleksandar Hemon (McCarter co-wrote the #Hamltome with Lin-Manuel Miranda!)
- Cory Doctorow, ʺWalkawayʺ in conversation with Mary Robinette Kowal
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ʺCoach Wooden and Meʺ in conversation with Richard Roeper presented by COUNTRY Financial
- Jonathan Safran Foer, ʺHere I Amʺ in conversation with Jennifer Day
- Memoir: What’s Life All About: Dani Shapiro, Meredith Maran and Amy Thielen in conversation with Sharon Pomerantz
- Revision, Reinvention & Resistance: Jennifer Finney Boylan, “Long Black Veil”; Introduced by Elizabeth Taylor