Nestled between the Chicago River and Millennium Park, the American Writers Museum has a room filled with old typewriters. On some, blank pages await musings from visitors curious to punch the stiff keys. One already holds a message: “City of the Big Shoulders,” a reference to Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago.” Meanwhile, 5 blocks away, Sandburg fans can stroll across the bustling Clark Street Bridge that inspired him, still a place of “Dust of the feet/And dust of the wheels.”
Many legendary writers have dredged Chicago’s streets for ideas and placed the city at the center of their tales. But a book-lover’s visit here isn’t just about retracing their steps. You also can geek out over quirky libraries, brainy drinking holes and glamorous stacks of books in unexpected places.
The South Side’s Stony Island Arts Bank hosts events and exhibitions and houses rare media collections.
To grasp the breadth of the city’s (and country’s) literary history in an hour or two, begin at the American Writers Museum, which opened in 2017. Besides the typewriters, a recent exhibit featured portraits of Illinois writers—Louis “Studs” Terkel at Tribune Tower and Roger Ebert standing on State Street. Photos of novelist James Jones captured him thrusting a dagger at the camera, loading a rifle and playing ping-pong bare-chested. In the Mind of the Writer gallery, quotes, mad-lib word plays and fun lessons fill the walls. A touch tablet reveals the writing routines and rituals of iconic penmen: Walt Whitman fueled himself on oysters; Kurt Vonnegut hammered out lines before breakfast; Ernest Hemingway wrote in the company of a six-toed cat (you can visit the writer’s birthplace in Oak Park). This winter’s new exhibit, Bob Dylan: Electric, confirms the museum is a must, while the rest of Chicago’s literary fun unfolds like a choose-your-own adventure. So settle in and get lost in a city of good books.
The almost meditative Word Waterfall cascades past visitors at the American Writers Museum.
Drinking & Eating
For Irish fare and craft cocktails inspired by writers, try Wilde or Lady Gregory’s. At Moody Tongue Brewing, you'll find America’s largest collection of brewing and beer books on display behind glass. Beneath Tudor-style beams, shelves at The Red Lion Pub hold the owner’s collection of British lit and history. Science buffs should visit The Albert in Hotel EMC2 (named for Einstein and his genius equation, respectively). Some 12,000 tomes, mostly science- and math-related, line the wall. At The Promontory, the restaurant's upstairs theater hosts occasional literary events and open mic poetry readings.
The Albert showcases books (above) and globally inspired eats (below.)
Reading & Dreaming
In West Loop, sleek fixtures, hardwood and modern art reclaim the former Free Methodist Publishing House. The Publishing House Bed and Breakfast opened in 2017, with 11 luxurious rooms named after Chicago-based novels and authors. You can curl up with a book in the inn’s scattered mini libraries and reading corners, including a favorite nook tucked under the staircase.
The Publishing House Bed and Breakfast (above and below).
Mary Bartelme Park in West Loop is a short walk from cozy rooms at The Publishing House.
Buying & Browsing
Chicago Public Library Chicago’s 81 branch libraries host all sorts of literary events. The Chinatown location, completed in 2015, is especially worth a visit, with a stunning glass-curtained exterior.
Chicago Public Library Chinatown Branch
Powell’s Books Chicago Chicago’s largest dealer of out-of-print, used and antiquarian books sits on 57th Street in Hyde Park. Founded in 1970, it’s an ancestor to Portland’s famous Powell’s bookstore.
57th Street Books A few blocks from Powell’s, get lost in this shop’s labyrinth of homey, unpainted shelves that wind under low ceilings.
Stony Island Arts Bank Part art gallery. Part rare media archive. And 100 percent Instagrammable, thanks to towering bookshelves. Exhibits include a library of magazines and books donated by Johnson Publishing Company, and tributes to the South Side.
Poetry Foundation In River North, peruse the Midwest’s only library dedicated to poetry. Gallery visits and all the foundation’s events are free for the public.
Pick up any of these Chicago books to inspire a visit.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger The Newberry, where protagonist Henry DeTamble works as a librarian, is a real place.
The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson Several tours visit key spots from this gripping true-crime tale of the 1893 World’s Fair.
The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros The real house was on North Campbell Street, in a now much-changed part of Humboldt Park.
Native Son by Richard Wright The once controversial book highlights race and class issues that are still pressing today in Chicago’s South Side.
Open Books stores (in Pilsen and West Loop) sell used titles for about $5. Sales fund local youth-literacy programs.