Smile Politely

The Literary in Downtown Champaign is a best-seller

When I first heard The Literary described as “a Scholastic book fair for adults, complete with wine and cheese” I thought it was too good to be true. I admit that I’m overly fond of my memories of Scholastic book fairs from elementary school. In addition to supplying me with my copy of The Chronicles of Narnia and my entire childhood collection of Dear America diaries (which foreshadowed lots of work in nineteenth-century history that surprised no one), they allowed me to stretch my reading ambitions to include my first-ever copies of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Such a place geared toward adults could only mean the revival of a young reader’s euphoria.

The Literary has positioned itself as “Chambana’s third place”—a place that isn’t home, and isn’t work, where people can come together over something they love without having to have a membership. At The Literary, the mutual love is for books of all sizes, shapes, persuasions, ratings, and reading levels. Though the wine and beer selection implies an adult clientele, plenty of books for children and young adults fill the shelves.

The “Scholastic book fair” vibes are all in the décor, which mixes whimsy with sophistication. Sturdy leather couches with green side tables and glass display surfaces give the place a comfortable and contemporary feel, while the eclectic artwork puts any ideas that this place might be snobby or uptight to bed. Plenty of book-adjacent items fill the displays: literary greeting cards, stickers, coffee mugs, earrings, and tree ornaments for the holidays find ways to fit on every available surface. It extends to the books as well. While there are a few Penguin classics to be found (particularly in the “classics” section), the editions that fill the shelves have bright, engaging covers that invite anyone to stop for a closer look.

Close up of book display at the Literary, Photo by Kathleen McGowan,

Photo by Kathleen McGowan.

It’s hard not to be inspired to write and create when you’re sitting around so many printed books, and in a space where the offbeat and the creative are so obviously welcome. To promote creatives who are honing their skills with written words, The Literary hosts a monthly event called VOICES. It features students from the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Illinois reading their own recent work (and taking audience questions afterward).

The November 18th VOICES event featured three writers: James Braun, Carrie Johnson, and Erin Hoffman, presenting a novel excerpt, a series of poems, and short fiction respectively. Hoffman was also acting as the MC for the event. The opening sketch comedy proved that both youth and those complaining about it have not changed in anyone’s memory, living or dead.

The “Thanksgiving Survival Guide” included advice to “arrive to dinner a cool twenty minutes late,” to lie if someone asks you what you’re doing in school and “tell grandma Ethel that you’re thinking about becoming a doctor,” and to “keep a list of excuses on your phone, for all purposes. Make them as disorienting as possible.” 

The excerpts of the three writers’ current works in progress showed varied starting levels of skill, and some had potential. This shows the real value of the VOICES events: they allow young writers to find their voices, to try out new material for a receptive and supportive audience, and to get their work into a new space. It’s all part of the process of growing and learning as a writer. An aspiring “third space,” The Literary has positioned itself ideally to host these kinds of events and to draw young creatives to its welcoming door.

The next VOICES event will take place at The Literary on Thursday, December 2nd.

The Literary
122 N Neil St
W-Su 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Top photo by Kathleen McGowan.


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