This weekend, Pilsen Community Books will hold its First Annual Book Fair at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport. Billed as “three days of books, art, and music,” the free event will feature more than 7,500 used books on sale for $4 each or $10 for three titles. Also offered will be literary-inspired swag from more than a dozen local artists like Shelby Rodeffer, Julian Baker, and Liana Jegers. With live performances by Stephen Paul Smoker, Small Places, The Just Luckies, and more, the fair will certainly be one lively party for bibliophiles.
Opening on October 5, the event is the brainchild of Mary Gibbons and Aaron Lippelt, co-owners of Pilsen Community Books and the Dial Bookshop. In the past three years alone, they’ve made a huge mark on Chicago’s booming literary scene by opening ridiculously photogenic bookstores, hosting stylish events, and hiring artists to help publicize their efforts. The Bridgeport book fair, though, might be their most ambitious undertaking to date.
I spoke with Gibbons over the phone about what visitors can expect this weekend, and how she and Lippelt wound up catering to Chicago’s love affair with books.
Why does Chicago deserve another book fair?
Aaron and I just really like throwing parties. We like hosting events. Also, we have so many books in storage that never make it to our shelves — because we have too many copies, or whatever the reason. So we were looking for a way to make some room. And we’ve formed a lot of relationships over the years with artists and musicians, so we’re always looking for ways to showcase all the great talent around us. When we came up with the idea of a book fair, we thought it was a perfect time to reach out to all these people and put something together.
How will it be different from a traditional book fair, like the Newberry Library’s?
We asked ourselves what kind of event we’d want to go to, and it involved a lot of live music and art. So we’re going to have 14 artists who are all contributing an original piece of art that is inspired by a book … and then the bands are just local bands that we like.
How did you two become Chicago booksellers?
I’m from New York, but I came to Chicago in 2009 for graduate school at the University of Chicago. I was in their Ph.D. program for English literature and … I didn’t like it. I realized academia wasn’t for me, so I left, and while I trying to figure out what to do next, I started volunteering at Open Books. Aaron has a similar story. He was working at a steel mill as a mechanical engineer, but he really hated this job. He quit and started volunteering at Open Books.
Why did you decide to open your own bookstore, Pilsen Community Books?
When we were working at Open Books, we opened up a little store in the corner of their warehouse and got a really good response from the community, so we decided to open a store of our own. I live in Pilsen and I love the neighborhood, and we knew there was a lot of local interest in getting a bookstore. We found an affordable space on 18th Street and opened Pilsen Community Books in 2016.
And then you opened the Dial Bookshop the following year.
We had always planned on expanding the Pilsen store. We thought we would open a Logan Square Community Books, a Humboldt Park Community Books, and expand in that way. But then one of our booksellers, Manuel, was talking with Keith Peterson at Selected Works and found out that he was retiring, so Manuel came to us immediately because he knew we would love the space. We’re like, “There’s no way we can afford the rent” on Michigan Avenue, but the guy who owns the Fine Arts Building keeps the rent really reasonable because he wants artists to be able to work there.
Is it important for you to host events in underserved communities like Pilsen and Humboldt Park?
Our philosophy in life is if something falls in our lap and it seems like the right thing to do, we do it. We would love to expand to Humboldt Park, and we do giveaways there, but in a way we’re filling a similar kind of role at the Dial, because everything else on Michigan Avenue is so insanely expensive. I bought an ice cream the other day and it was like $6 for a single. We’re rarely serving the people that live downtown at the Dial. It’s mostly people coming from other neighborhoods, so I like that people can get the downtown experience without having to spend a ton of money.