Past Memorial Day, you know it’s summer at last, when the kids are home from school, when you’ve grilled the first dogs and burgers of the season, when you take in the heady fragrance of lilacs in full bloom in the heat of an evening, and when you’ve been out too long in the sun, lazily reading a book.
For me, one of the vast pleasures of summer reading begins the first weekend in June in Chicago at the Printer’s Row Book Fair, now called Lit Fest.
Printer's Row Lit Fest 2011
Readings. Book signings. Authors, famous and not-so. Cooking demos. Cafe food. Street art and theatre. Music. People-watching people reading on the streets of Chicago. It’s all there, a book festival at its best, (even under threat of a thunderstorm). For wordivores and hoarders of books, it’s all about the books. Stall after stall, bookseller after seller, it’s nonstop browsing for - what is it? - three, four city blocks on Dearborn, from Congress to Polk, just south of the spectacular Harold Washington Library on State. For best results in the hunt, wear sensible shoes and sunscreen. And stay well hydrated.
Harold Washington Library
Beating the heat and traffic, through the gate around 9:30 in the morning, ice tea in hand, camera over shoulder, I have the pleasure of meeting Mary T. Wagner – author of Running with Stilettos. Standing at the Indie publisher tent, she’s bright-eyed and eager to share her new collection of essays, Fabulous in Flats. Literally - putting her best foot forward, she engages me in conversation, and before I know it, I’m thumbing through her book. But of course! With the promise that Mary is “the reincarnation of Erma Bombeck – in sexier shoes,” I decide to purchase the book. As Mary adds her signature with a generous inscription – I snap a picture, too.
Mary T. Wagner, signing Running with Stilettos
One of the pleasures of owning a decent camera is watching people on the street - observing them with a photographer’s eye, capturing moments and delicious little slices of life- if you’re lucky. Steps from Mary, I encounter Jen Wylie – looking radiant as a bride. With good reason. Jen shares with me that the book in her hand is her debut novel, (so new, in fact, she’s just seen it between two covers for the first time, not two hours earlier when she unpacked the books, “hot off the press” - from the publisher (Eshelon). Ahh a romance, appears to be a juvie at that … not my genre, but I’m heartily pleased for her.
A first for Jen Wylie
Last stop at Tent 6 – St. Martin’s Moon. As author Marc Vun Kannon explains, (sounding like one of his own characters) it’s a gothic sci fi about, uh, werewolves and ghosts in space, on a lunatic (I mean lunar) hunt on the moon. Earth's moon? Who knows, some lunar colony out there! Anyway. Still scratching my head about the genre, gothic sci fi, thinking about the preponderance of vampires (vamp lit?), wondering if all sci fi isn’t somehow an outburst of gothic convention, anyway... I snap his earnest picture, too. So here you are, Marc... with all four books, under your influence.
Lunar Man, Marc Vun Kannon
More ice tea. The morning heats up. The book stalls begin filling in with browsers, readers, collectors, families and dogs. Serious, studious readers and their dogs. I take my time, scanning the shelves . . . looking for that one, spectacular accidental find that makes the hunt all the more thrilling and rewarding
Booksellers, shoppers. . .
Best find ever – first year I attended the festival, I pulled off the shelf a mint copy of Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. Picked it out of the thousands of used books, because it was recommended reading—bought it for a pricey little $40, only to discover later that my copy was one of only 2500 in the first printing of the first edition, and that the book is now worth some $1500. (I have since had it signed by the author at another book.)
At the Printer’s Row Festival in years past, I’ve stood in line to see John Updike, Erica Jong, E.L. Doctorow, Studs Terkel. On the lookout for famous authors, I’ve caught a glimpse of Joyce Carol Oates on the street and shared a few words with Jim Lehrer. Headliners this year were Terry McMillan (waiting to exhale, again) and Elizabeth Berg (27 books I have yet had the pleasure to meet.)
With no author in particular and with no special book calling to me out on the street this year, I slip into the cool of Printer’s Row Fine and Rare Books, where owner John LaPine plays on an entirely different field, specializing antiquarian and literary classics, as well as modern first editions. No outdoor tables and riff-raff here. This bookshop is strictly for insiders. John claims if he doesn’t have it among his million or so volumes, he can find it for you. I believe him. His store is crammed with lustrous oak cabinets. All locked. His shopkeepers hold the keys, opening glass doors to anything from a $30 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to a $30,000 copy of The Grapes of Wrath.
John LaPine, Rare Books & Friends
I think back at the first time I walked into the shop, more out of curiosity than anything else, I presented him with my mother’s copy of The Grapes of Wrath -- (third printing, no dust jacket, well worn and sun-faded). He sniffed, handed the book back to me in slight distain with the appraisal, worth $2.
It hit me right then and there in that shop, that if I were to cover my books in vinyl, stash them in bookcases - dust-free, behind glass doors - and in alphabetical order, then by golly, I too could have myself an almost respectable little collection. Though I’ve purchased very few books from John LaPine, I credit him with starting me on the quest. Book collecting.
So what did I "collect" last week at the fair called LitFest? Damned if I know what rhyme or reason prevailed in my selection: one graphic novel, purchased on impulse at 3.98; a vintage Seuss - If I Ran the Circus (I can never resist a good clean copy of a Dr. Seuss, especially one in a bright dust jacket); Mark Z. Danielewski Only Revolutions (inscrutable); Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers (not gothic, but literary sci fi!); and oh yes, Running with Stilettos. Lots to read this summer.
(Will let you know how it all ends.)
Photos: V Henoch and M Henoch