A Book Lover’s Guide to Downtown Chicago

From independent bookstores to book-themed tours to cultural institutions, downtown Chicago is heaven for book nerds


When a city has a neighbourhood called Printer’s Row, it’s not surprising that its proud history includes literary greats and publishing powerhouses. Think not only of Chicago’s adopted sons and daughters – Upton Sinclair Jr., Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audrey Niffenegger – but also homegrown authors Sandra Cisneros, Scott Turow and Lorraine Hansberry. Is there something in the water that makes Chicago authors plumb the human psyche so deeply?

We may never know – just as we’ll never fully comprehend the heyday of Printer’s Row. Today, this neighbourhood is synonymous with converted lofts and condos rather than print shops and publishers. Apart from the ghost signs slowly fading, there are few indications of this area’s magnificent past.

Luckily, there are still plenty of ways to indulge your bibliophile tendencies in downtown Chicago. Need a quiet spot to read? We’ve got you covered. Prefer indie bookstores to ordering online? We hear you. Read on to learn how to become a Chicago Loop book nerd, and maybe pick up a book to bring home to another book nerd in your life.

Sandmeyer’s Bookstore

For 35 years, family-owned Sandmeyer’s Bookstore has kept the ghosts of Printer’s Row alive. This cosy one-room shop is practically an advertisement for hominess thanks to its interior brick walls and large plate windows. The uneven floorboards tend to creak, and the radiator clanks and clacks in the winter months – auditory additions that only enhance Sandmeyer’s unpretentious vibe.

Though the store is small compared to its big-box competitors, it’s easy to lose track of time perusing each section. There’s fiction, of course, and all the usual departments (business, poetry, cookbooks, and so on). A robust children’s section adds some colour to the room, as does a surprisingly large collection of greeting cards.

Don’t forget to check out the coffee table books near the door before leaving. One of those glossy art books of Chicago might be the perfect souvenir – a lot nicer than a plastic replica of the John Hancock Building, in our humble opinion.


714 S. Dearborn St., 312-922-2104


Harold Washington Library Center

A short jaunt northeast will bring you within gawking distance of the huge winged creatures, mint green in hue, soaring aggressively from the roof of the Harold Washington Library Center. These are owls, representing knowledge. Perched atop the red brick building, they make a fitting tribute to the architectural surprise you will find inside.

A library might not seem the most logical stop for a visitor to Chicago – after all, you won’t be able to check out any books. But set aside your misgivings and trust us on this one. Grab your paperback (or your Billy app-equipped device) and take the elevator to the ninth floor. Stepping off the elevator, you’ll be greeted by an oasis of calm. The soaring, glass-covered atrium of the Winter Garden brings the outdoors inside with lush plant life, dappled sunlight and a tromp l’oeil façade that makes it hard to believe you haven’t stepped onto a penthouse balcony.


Harold Washington Library Center

Take the elevator to the ninth floor to reach this palatial reading room

Follow the lead of other patrons and settle into a chair for a relaxing read. Gaze at the tree arching above you. Feel smug about avoiding bird poop, tumbling acorns and nagging mosquitoes. The winds may be whistling outside, but you might as well be in Miami, Malibu or Monterey.


400 S. State St., 312-747-4300

Curbside Books & Records

From the library, it’s a half-mile (800-metre) walk to your next stop. Tucked into a corner of the bustling Revival Food Hall, Curbside Books & Records is an unexpected sight – because this is a food hall, not a book hall. But after you’ve slurped your ramen and sipped your smoothie, meander over to Curbside to quench a different kind of appetite.

Curbside fights for the little guys. It showcases fiction, nonfiction and poetry from independent publishing houses, plus records and tapes (yes, tapes!) from independent labels. Their selection of works from local authors and musicians is top notch. All of this makes sense when you consider who is responsible for Curbside: it’s Curbside Splendor Publishing, a small, Chicago-based independent press. You can thank them for the gems you’re sure to find in this corner retreat.


125 S. Clark St., 312-855-2233

Closed weekends

The Devil in the White City Tour

Architecture. Fairgrounds. Seduction. Deception. Murder. That’s not just any five-word synopsis – it’s the plot (very roughly) of The Devil in the White City. Written by Erik Larson, this bestselling 2003 non-fiction book recounts the grisly true story of a serial killer on the loose in Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The story thrilled and terrified readers across the country; it’s now being made into a Martin Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.


What is this place? It’s a mystery until you take the tour!

The book is also the subject of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s popular three-hour-and-15-minute tour, which starts in the Loop and buses participants to relevant sites around the city. The tour includes a presentation to set up the context and the cast of characters, followed by stops at the former fairgrounds and the street where Chicago’s high society then resided. You’ll journey backward, metaphorically, to a time when the architectural feats of a Ferris wheel seemed inconceivable, when trains were the primary mode of travel and when tuberculosis was a common and fatal threat. We won’t judge if you decide to dress in period clothing.


224 S. Michigan Ave., 312-922-3432

Printer’s Row Lit Fest

If you’re fortunate enough to time your Chicago visit with the annual Printer’s Row Lit Fest, you might want to pack an extra suitcase. (The 2017 edition takes place on June 10 and 11.)

Don’t blame us if you leave this literary extravaganza with a stack or two of new tomes – or old ones, thanks to the many stalls selling used (and in some cases, positively ancient) books.


Held each year in June, the festival bills itself as the Midwest’s largest outdoor literary fair. Readers come from near and far to restock their personal libraries and mingle with fellow book lovers. Author readings, panels and cooking demonstrations (inspired by cookbooks, naturally) round out the weekend. The fest always brings together a nice mix of local and national authors; past speakers have included Colson Whitehead, Sebastian Junger, Marilynne Robinson and Terry McMillan.


S. Dearborn St. between Congress and Polk streets

American Writers Museum

On May 16, eager Chicagoans and excited visitors alike will finally get the chance to peek behind the doors of the American Writers Museum, the first of its kind in the country. The tempting titles of the permanent exhibits include “The Mind of a Writer,” “Children’s Literature Gallery,” “Word Waterfall” and “A Nation of Writers,” which offers something intriguing called the “Surprise Bookshelf.”

Did you know Jack Kerouac typed the first draft of On the Road on a single piece of paper, 36 metres in length? You can see this impressive scroll at the museum. Another exhibit will feature an interactive kiosk where visitors will attempt to write a collective story, one sentence at a time.


180 N. Michigan Ave., Second Floor, 312-374-8790

A rendering of what the Kerouac On the Road scroll will look like when the museum opens May 16

A Book Lover’s Guide to Downtown Chicago
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