“You’ve got to check out the Printers Row Lit Fest.”

I’ve heard that plea every summer from my coworkers for the past three years, but something always got in the way. This year, however, I was destined to come face-to-face with my first literary festival. I was ready.

I’m not sure what I expected. In my ideal world, there’d be a hammock area for quiet reading while the festival itself would contain mingling cosplayers dressed as Hester Prynnes and Atticus Finches. An Edgar Allen Poe or two (with requisite raven friends) wouldn’t hurt matters either.

Frankly, I had my head stuck in the clouds.

While my literary wonderland didn’t come to fruition, I was impressed by the scope of Printers Row.  The festival claims to be the largest outdoor literary festival in the Midwest, and given that I couldn’t even see where the booths ended, it certainly seemed to be true. The 200+ booksellers in attendance line up along five city blocks in Chicago’s bookmaking hub, Printers Row neighborhood. The two-day festival features discussion panels and Q&As with a wide range of authors. This year’s fest welcomed LeVar Burton, Erik Larson, Tavis Smiley, Bob Saget, Amber Tamblyn, and more.

I mostly relied on the advice of my veteran Printers Row friends to decide how to spend our day. Attendees can purchase festival passes for access to the various discussion panels, or they can simply wander through the booths at will. My friends and I chose the latter. One never succumbs to a timetable whilst perusing excellent literature.

I was tickled to see how well attended the festival was. Every time I approached a booth, I had to squeeze past people to make out the titles on the spines. Whoever says books are a dying art must have never attended a literary festival.

The beauty of the event is that literary geeks can find treasures that would’ve otherwise stayed buried in someone’s storage unit. My favorite gems included a U.S. history anthology set that was published in the 1830s and a copy of The Giving Tree that included a personal inscription from Shel Silverstein.

The Internet allows us to buy books from just about anywhere, but at Printers Row, you can become part of the history of a book, another stop in its lifespan. These were the books I lingered on, the ones I dreamt of adding someday to my future library. Sadly, my graduate student bank account doesn’t yet allow for such luxuries.

I had hoped to leave Printers Row with one thing: a thorough poetry anthology. While I was tempted by a Walt Whitman collection, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and I ended up leaving empty-handed. My advice to anyone else planning to attend a literary festival: look for a map immediately upon entering, so you can give your seemingly aimless wandering some sense of direction.  I might’ve spent a little less time at the booths that had limited available genres and more time at the booths with an eclectic touch.

Non-book offerings at the festival included a couple of booths with vintage-style posters and handmade leather journals. While the journals were a nice touch, I was dismayed to see that the vintage posters didn’t take on literary themes.  Where was Out of Print Clothing to convince me that a 1984 T-shirt was more important than budgeting for gas money?

One other perk to the festival was that I ran into several friends I hadn’t expected to see, which only reinforced my belief that I hang around wonderful people. There were multiple pilgrimages from my office alone. Reading tends to be a solitary activity, so it’s nice to see an event where the literature-obsessed can openly unite in the daylight.

If you’ve never been to a literary festival before and love books, I would recommend checking out any of the upcoming festivals listed below. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything by not attending any of the talks, but I hope to work a talk into my schedule the next time I go.

My one regret from the experience is that I didn’t write down a wish list of five books I’d have been open to buying. When my poetry anthology didn’t pan out, I was left hoping that I’d remember another book I’ve been wanting to read. It left me feeling slightly interested in too many books instead of fully invested in just a couple, which ultimately resulted in me leaving empty-handed. A more fruitful move would’ve been having a game plan with backup options. Thank goodness I can start planning my Goodreads bookshelf now.

Check out some upcoming literary festivals near you!

What? Northwest Book Festival
Where? Portland, OR
When? July 25, 2015

What? National Book Festival
Where? Washington, D.C.
When? September 5, 2015

What? Brooklyn Book Festival
Where? Brooklyn, NY
When? September 14-21, 2015

What? The Pygmalion Festival
Where? Urbana, IL
When? September 23-27, 2015

What? Brattleboro Literary Festival
Where? Brattleboro, VT
When? October 2-4, 2015 (Rumored, but unconfirmed)

What? LitQuake
Where? San Francisco, CA
When? October 9-17, 2015

What? Texas Book Festival
Where? Austin, TX
When? October 17-18, 2015

What? Boston Book Festival
Where? Boston, MA
When? October 23-24, 2015

Featured image via Printers Row.