“When you talk about books, you are talking about every kind of human endeavor,” says Bette Cerf Hill of Evanston, founding director of the Printers Row Lit Fest. Established in 1985 by the South Loop Planning Board (now the Near South Planning Board, NSPB), this quintessential Chicago event will be celebrating its 35th anniversary with a two-day blowout event June 8-9.
“Every spring for 35 years more than 100,000 people have gathered in the old Printers Row Historic District at the Loop’s south edge for a two-day celebration of all things literary,” Hill says.
The planning board also founded the Harold Washington Literary Awards, which will kick off all the festivities on June 6 by celebrating their 30th anniversary. Lit Fest 2019 will then unfurl the festival weekend by extending back to its full potential footprint. Having reduced in size over the past years, the event now will run along the entire Printers Row District, from Dearborn Station to Ida B. Wells Drive, presenting 100 booksellers and offering 60 programs, sponsored by Wintrust Community Bank, and featuring some 100 speakers on eight separate stages.
“(Wintrust is) very much focused on economic development for greater Chicago but also in individual neighborhoods and communities,” says Matthew Doubleday of Park Ridge, Wintrust senior vice president and chief marketing officer. “It’s a great opportunity for local bookstores, local publishers, and local businesses in the South Loop to get more traffic, business, and more exposure, and Lit Fest is one of those iconic events that … gets people into the city.”
In this way, the event is doing its fair share to not only remind people what they have always loved about books but also to bring that love and appreciation to new readers. To that end, this year will even feature a children’s parade where kids are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite literary characters.
“Lit Fest has really been at the forefront of getting people excited about books in Chicago,” says Brad Jonas, part-owner of Powell’s Books in Hyde Park. Jonas was one of the first participants in the fair 35 years ago. “There is a real excitement to people coming in and seeing books in person, particularly at something like Lit Fest where you have a real variety of books.”
In addition to vendors, many publishers will also have a presence. These will include the University of Chicago book press, Women Mystery Writers, the Museum of American Authors, Poetry Foundation, and American Writers Museum.
“Books aren’t disappearing,” Hill says. “There are still authors writing and poets writing, and there are still enough people who still love to feel a real book in their lap; so the industry is far from dead.”
The emphasis this year will be on Chicago authors, though the reason is far from just merely location.
“Right now, nationally, Chicago is so hot, it’s amazing,” Hill says.
Alex Kotlowitz, the 2019 winner of the Harold Washington Literary Award, and Valerie Jarrett, the longest-serving senior adviser to President Barack Obama, are some of the scheduled speakers.
“I think this is really an important moment for Chicago writers,” adds Elizabeth Taylor, former literary editor of the Chicago Tribune and Lit Fest creative director. “Chicago has a tradition of great poetry and great literature; is prolific (with) a high quality of wonderful and interesting writing … and I think it kind of metabolizes into a sort of wonderful combination that we hope to highlight at the festival.”
Additional celebrity authors include Rosellen Brown (“The Lake on Fire”); chef/author Rick Bayless, who is scheduled to speak and do a cooking demonstration; and Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues), who will speak about her new book, “The Apology.”
Diversity in programming is a core commitment of the fair, says Teresa Basso Gold, Lit Fest director of programming. “From children and teenagers to scholars and sports fans there is going to be something for everyone this year,” Gold says.
In a tip of the hat to its original ethos, the fair and all its programming this year are completely free and open to the public, just as they were when it was first founded.
“If (people) don’t buy a book or an ice cream cone, they can take their family out for one or two days of bliss in the sunshine without spending a penny but visiting a lot of history and fiction and non-fiction that they would love,” Hill says.
Founding the book fair meant bringing a community together to showcase all that is great about the South Loop, and presenting this city corner as a great place to live, work, and grow, says Bonita Sanchez-Carlson of Chicago, NSPB president and executive director.
“Come experience this evolution of the neighborhood, of books in general, and witness a community outdoor free event for all ages,” Sanchez-Carlson says.
Erstwhile columnist/photographer for the Daily Herald and currently 22nd Century Media, for the past 12 years Lee A. Litas has likewise been a dining and trend columnist and photographer for Pioneer Press, first under the Chicago Sun-Times and now under the Chicago Tribune umbrellas. Hailing from a half-Greek/half-Russian family where “filoxenia” was the way of life, Litas now makes it her business to find the juiciest morsels, both newsy and edible, wherever she travels. Graduate of The American Graduate School of International Management-Thunderbird and Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism; polyglot, all-around gadabout, and Argentine tango dancer — not all at the same time, mostly.