By Jamie Murnane
Virginia Woolf famously said that all one needed to write is a room of one’s own. For some people, this may be true, but for others, all they need is a drink and a seat in a quiet pub, like Wilde Bar. At the new Lakeview bar and restaurant, there are two full-sized Victorian bars and numerous hefty wooden tables throughout, but the focal point is undeniably its massive library.
A raised open area complete with fireplace and an elaborate stained-glass dome, the library features towering authentic wooden bookshelves—not the IKEA-style wood we’ve grown so accustomed to, but real old-fashioned, no-Allen-wrenches-involved wood—packed with old hardcover classics.
On a quiet night, a patron can sit here, near the snap-crackling fireplace (with the flat-screen TVs out of view), and pen the beginning (or several failed beginnings) to the next Great American Novel. For inspiration, look no further than a book to your left, filled with prose that is best accompanied with a Hot Toddy on a cold Chicago night or the illuminated painting above the fireplace of the bar’s namesake: great Irish writer Oscar Wilde.
Looking back at Wilde and other great writers of the twentieth century, one would think that a bottle of beer goes hand in hand with a pen, a glass of scotch with a typewriter. Many other literary heavyweights—like Hemingway, Bukowski, Kerouac, Burroughs and Chicago’s own Nelson Algren—were known for their drinking almost as much as for their writing, which helped to solidify the romanticized vision of the drinker-writer.
“I see all these kids who want to be writers walking around with dog-eared copies of ‘Naked Lunch’ crammed in their back pockets,” says novelist and playwright Joe Meno, who also teaches fiction writing at Columbia College. “There’s this old, romantic idea that to be a writer you have to get drunk, swagger and pass out in alleys, but you can’t get drunk and have a career. It doesn’t work; you just can’t produce.”
And while it’s true that downing a bottle of tequila, shot-by-lime-and-salt-infused shot, will not an instant novelist make, the relationship between liquor and literature is nonetheless a huge part of Chicago’s lit scene, whether it’s in the form of writing or reading, or in the form of a beer or a Scotch. Writers like Meno (author of “The Boy Detective Fails” and “Hairstyles of the Damned”) have taken new approaches to sharing their work in bars as opposed to the typical bookstore route, and it has paid off—readings paired with drinks have become a new favorite pastime that gives writers, readers, listeners and perhaps just neighborhood drinkers a new way to get lit.
“The Hideout is perfect for literature events,” Meno says. On most nights, the Wabansia Street venue plays host to local and touring musical acts, but the owners are also very supportive of the literature scene and host regular readings. Author Jonathan Messinger’s popular lit series, The Dollar Store, ran monthly at the Hideout until this past November. Based on items purchased at a dollar store, a rotating roster of writers were invited to wax poetic on their cheap muses. Combined with cheap drinks, the night had been a notable success and will likely continue sporadically (Messinger keeps a busy schedule as co-publisher of indie publishing company Featherproof Books).
Similarly, Reading Under the Influence has the best of both worlds, but with a certain edge—participants and patrons are encouraged to drink shots before reading from published classics or their own written works. After the reading, more shots are consumed and a trivia contest based on the reading is held. RUI takes place on the first Wednesday of every month in the back room of Sheffield’s in Lincoln Park.
“I think reading series at bars provide literate folks with a more interesting thing to do than watching sports while getting tanked,” says past RUI participant Kathie Bergquist. Bergquist is the author of “The Gay and Lesbian Guide to Chicago” and also the manager of Women and Children First Bookstore in Andersonville. She names Danny’s Tavern in Bucktown and the Hungry Brain as other great bars that host frequent readings, but acknowledges that they do pose somewhat of a threat to typical readings that don’t generally provide attendees with alcohol.
“I think that readings out at bars have an aura of being ‘sexier’ than bookstore readings, because there is liquor involved and the perception is that the content will be raunchier,” she says. “I think it’s a shame, in a sense, as there are so many great free readings going on at bookstores throughout the city at any given time that are not getting as much hype.”
But she notes that W&CF has had to up the alcoholic ante to entice people into the generally dry readings from touring authors.
“One way we are trying to compete with what we call ‘off-site’ reading events is by picking one or two funkier, sexier readings a month off of our schedule and offering wine, and often food, at them. An example of this is when we had free mojitos and Cuban food for the release of Achy Obejas’ new anthology, ‘Havana Noir.’ Or, if we are having a group reading with a bunch of local writers, it’s a nice way to add a celebratory flavor to the reading, as well as an additional audience draw.”
She continues, “I realize that the lighting at Women & Children First is not as ambient as a bar setting, but at least when we offer booze, we offer it for free and you can buy your books there, too.”
The social aspect of bars and even bookstores that have accommodated writers and readers has allowed locals in the lit scene to sell and excel. Getting people to see a newly published writer at Borders is a little more difficult than getting a regular at Sheffield’s to pay attention to the man or woman reading their own short story at the front of the bar.
Brian Costello, author of “The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs,” says these kind of events are putting a new, entertaining twist on readings. “Typically, someone who might read at Borders just reads a little and might answer some questions at the end,” he says. “Then you might wait to have your book signed or shake their hand and say, ‘Oh wow, that was great.’ A lot of us who’ve been doing these kind of readings for a long time have always tried to react to these stuffy, stereotypical readings where the person just reads from their book and the audience is very serious. These new twists, with the help of a bar situation, remind people that these are stories for everyone, not just lit critics.”
At first, it might have seemed unorthodox, but when Drinking and Writing Brewery was founded in 2003, co-creator Sean Benjamin knew he had to offer a way for the two historically linked pastimes to connect. A figurative brewery, Drinking and Writing Brewery is a production company that started with a group of Neo-Futurists (famous for “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind”) who wanted to do a show on Bukowski.
“First, we were focusing on Bukowski,” says Benjamin. “Then when we thought of him, we thought of Kerouac and more and more writers who fit that personality of the loner writer drinking in solitude.”
Though Benjamin shares Meno’s notion that it’s not as common these days for a writer to be both successful and a drunk, the connection between liquor and literature is omnipresent. “The more we say writers aren’t big drinkers as much, the more we see ones who are,” he continues. “A lot of writers drink to release inhibitions and [twentieth-century] writers drank so they had those experiences to write about, like Jack Kerouac drinking and going on road trips and writing about them.”
He continues, “Today, there aren’t too many writing jobs where drinking is as acceptable. But it’s harder to think of a twentieth-century writer who didn’t drink than one who did.”
What is still acceptable, though, are the events and readings that take place nearly every week in various bars throughout the city that celebrate and sustain the drinker-writer parallel. Brewing these kinds of events is something the Drinking and Writing Brewery has done for the last four years.
As Meno says, it’s events like these that allow modern writers to let loose. “The readings are the fun part, after you do all the work,” he says. “During my early formation as a writer, I lived in Rogers Park and went to the Green Mill a lot. Now, I spend a lot of hours at the computer by myself—sober. I know a lot of writers—the same for a lot of artists I know—who drink because alcohol is actually a depressant so it can subdue you when you’re getting excited about what you’re writing. So, you drink not because you’re hiding or you’re a tormented artist, but because you walk around all day with your head in the clouds.”
Perhaps what Chicago is missing, according to Bergquist, is a true “writer’s” bar. Besides the newspaper-famed Billy Goat Tavern, there isn’t one hangout that has been synonymous with writing.
“I was just in New York, at the KGB Bar there, which is truly a ‘writers’ bar, with nightly readings, and I lamented that there really weren’t any bars in Chicago that cultivated the writer crowd in as meaningful a way as they do,” she says. “Too bad, because we’re drinkers—big time.”
Wilde Bar could become the new spot, if it lives up to its namesake, but the location might make it more of a relaxing hangout that is an alternative to the otherwise hopping Boystown nightlife. On early weeknights (before the place gets too crowded, as new bars tend to do), patrons can get cozy near the fireplace of the library-like area, the most Wilde-esque part of the place, and scribble in their journals.
Bars like Danny’s Tavern and the Hopleaf, on the other hand, have long been revered among literary folks throughout the city. For many drinkers who happen to be writers (or writers who happen to be drinkers), Danny’s is a step-above a dive art-house establishment, complete with many dark (candlelit only) nooks and crannies to truly get into the loner drinker-writer persona. Plus, the tavern hosts the increasingly popular Danny’s Reading Series, featuring local authors and poets on the third Wednesday of every month.
Bookslut.com hosts a monthly reading series at Andersonville’s Hopleaf, which is also where the Drinking and Writing Brewery first began and holds it annual Drinking and Writing Festival. The bar’s owner Mike Roper attributes the big literary draw to the fact that his is one of the few watering holes in the city that doesn’t have a single television set. They also don’t play loud music and keep a good number of highbrow publications on hand, such as The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, The Nation and The Atlantic Monthly.
“We’d like to think all these things, as well as carrying better beers and wines and better, more interesting food than typical bar food, makes us draw a more cerebral audience,” Roper says. “So the kind of people who are attracted to book readings are all already our clientele. Plus, we have our separate upstairs space where Bookslut has its readings that is quieter—a real ideal venue.”
At Hopleaf, it’s not an anomaly to see a regular sitting by him or herself, reading a book at the bar on a quiet evening. But this would be at almost any bar in Wrigleyville, Roper says. “It’d be like, ‘Look at that creepy guy at the bar reading a book. Don’t serve him anymore.’”
“We like to introduce people to the fact that it’s possible to have an experience in a bar that’s not a loud place with people chugging Miller Lite and screaming for their sports team,” Roper continues. “I feel we’ve carved out a niche. Most bar owners think the thing to do to draw the most people is to be a little of everything, like an Irish sports bar with pizza and burritos, karaoke and darts. It’s just a train wreck. A train wreck that happens on almost every corner of the city. But I think you really just become too generic by doing that.”
It usually is the smaller, off-the-beaten-path bars that allure writers. The drinks are cheaper, so more can be consumed for less, and it’s less likely to deal with overcrowding, meaning there’s plenty of elbow room for damp napkin haikus and stained Moleskin prose.
“I have a strong visceral link with old-man bars as writer places, mostly for the Nelson Algren connection, but also because they are cheap,” Bergquist says. Algren, author of “Chicago: City on the Make,” famously frequented West Town bars such as Lottie’s in Bucktown.
It could be a testament to Chicago’s community—supportive venues champion writers all over the city, rather than in one place all of the time. With several publishing companies, small presses and lit magazines based here, the bar owners take notice, and offer their space as a supportive environment to share drinks and words amongst veterans and newbies alike.
As Bergquist says, “One thing is certain: Writers, and fans of writers, are big boozers.”
And our town is a writer’s town.