This Saturday and Sunday (June 10-11), Chicago hosts the largest outdoor literary festival in the Midwest, Printers Row Lit Fest. More than 125,000 people will flock to the historic, eponymous Printers Row district for a bookfair featuring more than 100 exhibitors.
But there’s more to see at Printers Row than just books. After all, it’s set in one of the most beautiful corners of Chicago, once the largest publishing center in the United States at the turn of the century (yes…bigger than New York).
Here are ten things you don’t want to miss:
1. Our Booth (Duh)
Yes, we’ll have a table in the Book Fort. Stop by between 10 and 6 both days to meet me, our executive editor Kristen Raddatz, and some of the editors at our sister publication Arcturus magazine. We’ll also be selling memberships, if you feel so inclined (with the added perk of a free book or two).
Plus, our table will feature the first ever Chicago Literary Crystal Ball, where you can browse advanced readers copies of forthcoming books by Chicago authors, including Jac Jemc, Edward Kelsey Moore, Lindsay Hunter, Augustus Rose, Liesl Olson, and more.
2. Sandmeyer’s Bookstore
One of the oldest and most beautiful independent bookstores in the city, Sandmeyer’s keeps the Printers Row neighborhood literary, decades after the last printing press fled for the burbs. It’s still run by founders Ellen and Ulrich Sandmeyer, and it anchors one of the two gorgeous Franklin Buildings (see below).
3. The Panels
Printers Row isn’t just a bookfair…it’s a literary festival with more than 200 local and visiting authors. Almost all of the panels are free. Here’s the full schedule, including people like Osama Alomar, Kim Brooks, Kevin Coval, Jason Diamond, Cory Doctorow, Omar El Akkad, Michelle Falkoff, Gillian Flynn, Gina Frangello, Senator Al Franken, Keir Graff, Aleksandar Hemon, Britt Julious, Ibram X. Kendi, Scaachi Koul, Mary Robinette Kowal, Catherine Lacey, Rebecca Makkai, Nate Marshall, Joe Meno, Toni Nealie, Audrey Niffenegger, Lori Rader-Day, Kathleen Rooney, Jonathan Safran Foer, Christine Sneed, Megan Stielstra, Ben Tanzer, Elizabeth Taylor, and Paula Whyman.
4. The Franklin Building(s)
My favorite remnant of the original Printers Row is the 14-story “Chicago School” building at 720 South Dearborn, also called the “New” Franklin Building. Built in 1916 by the Franklin Printing Company, it’s covered with terra cotta murals and other architectural details that commemorate the history of bookmaking and the printing press (see the Gutenberg mural above). In the late ’80s, long after most printers had left the area, the Franklin Building was gutted and converted to loft space.
Right next door is the “Old” Franklin Building, built in 1886, which houses Sandmeyer’s Bookstore on the first floor.
5. The Greatest 3-Minute “Chicago vs. New York” Stories
This event isn’t part of the festival, but it’s just a few blocks away, it’s free, and a lot of beautiful people will be there (like me). Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s traveling 3-Minute Stories series comes to the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, this time featuring “Chicago vs. New York” stories from (and a conversation with) Jason Diamond, Britt Julious, Megan Stielstra, Megan Kirby, Angelica Bastién, and me, Adam Morgan. Click here for more details.
6. The Donohue Building
Built in 1883 to house the children’s book publisher M.A. Donohue & Co., this grand Romanesque revival building is now one of the finest loft spaces in Chicago, thanks to the open floor plans and giant windows common among old printing press buildings, which required plenty of natural light (another reason the neighborhood’s blocks are half the size of Chicago’s normal grid: more surface area for windows).
7. The Conversation
The Conversation — a new activist-minded literary series usually held at Women & Children First Bookstore — continues at a different location to coincide with Printers Row: Jones College Prep (Chance the Rapper’s alma mater). The topic this month is “Writing Resistance,” and the participants are Jeremy McCarter, Heath Fogg Davis, Geoffrey Stone, and Audrey Petty. The conversation will be moderated by event curator Rebecca Makkai.
8. The Most Important Building in the History of the Printing Press
Before 1884, all printing had to be set by hand — every single letter. But then a German inventor named Ottmar Mergenthaler came up with Linotype, a mechanized way to mass produce printed materials. Two years after inventing the process in Germany, he moved to this building at 531 South Plymouth Court and opened up shop, thus establishing this section of the South Loop as ground zero for printers.
9. Dearborn Station
Before Chicago’s Union Station was built in 1925, Dearborn Station was where immigrants, tourists, movie stars, and world’s fair visitors arrived in the Second City. Constructed in 1885, it also played a huge role in the neighborhood’s publishing industry, thanks to underground tunnels connecting the train yard to the basements of the printing buildings. Sadly, the sloping roofs were never replaced after a fire destroyed them in 1922, and the train shed was demolished in 1976. It lay vacant for a few years after, but today it’s a bustling office and retail center, home to a Bar Louie and the Jazz Showcase.
10. Lakeside Press Building
This stupidly handsome building was home to Chicago’s premier publisher during the heyday of Printers Row. Once an imprint of RR Donnelley (yes, that RR Donnelley) Lakeside Press is perhaps best known for its Lakeside Classics series, which began in 1901 as an annual Christmas gift from the company president to his employees: reprints of classic books, bound in cloth and embossed with gold. Today the structure belongs to Columbia College Chicago, but you can still see Lakeside’s literary legacy in the architectural details. (A little further south, a block away from McCormick Place, Lakeside Press’s old plant still stands as well. It’s beautiful too, and now houses a massive data center.)
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Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.