Fiction’s finest read at The Book Cellar

By HermineBloom

By merely glancing at the array of colorful restaurant signs, shadowy alley ways and crowds of similarly dressed city dwellers, it’s well understood that every Chicago street tells its own distinct cultural story. In this case, however, 95th Street and Belmont Avenue have stories waiting to be told about them.

Since May, The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave., has warmly invited Chicagoans to stop by on the second Saturday of each month and listen to a few of Chicago’s most talented fiction writers. The event requires them to read from stories that incorporate the same Chicago street in a third-person narrative. Past readers include Jonathan Messinger, Eric May, Bobby Biedrzycki, Jill Summers and Rob Duffer.

Brian Costello, freelance writer for The Chicago Reader, band member and fiction writer, came up with the idea and hosts the event named Second City/Third Person with co-host Nicole Chakalis. Costello drew his inspiration from the short story “Farwell” written by Stuart Dybek, which is primarily set on Farwell Street in Rogers Park.

Costello’s vision came to fruition after he developed a creative way to include a theme dedicated to one street per reading, third-person narratives and assembling Chicago-based fiction writers who regularly participate in readings.

“I was interested in doing third-person stories in the oral setting,” Costello said. “The idea is to show that you can have a voice that can be just as powerful and just as engaging as the favored first person. At most readings, people are going to read things in first person because that’s, of course, how people tell stories. With third person, you have access to all points of view. You can switch points of view and use different characters. You have the freedom to play around with perception.”

The event begins when Chakalis reads the particular street name’s Wikipedia entry aloud to the audience before the guests read their pieces.

“Nicole’s from Chicago and she has the Chicago accent,” Costello said. “I’m from Florida, so she needs to read it in the Chicago accent.”

Zach Dodson, Alexis Thomas and Kyle Beachy will all be reading on Sept. 12 at The Book Cellar in this weekend’s installment of Second City/Third Person. Belmont Avenue happens to be the focus of this particular event.

“The street could be the actual setting of the story or something that comes up. It really varies,” Costello said. “Sometimes it’s a building or a place on the street — a restaurant, a bar or [a character] just walking down the street. Other times it’s mentioned kind of off-hand. It’s really interesting how people approach it. It’s a great creative exercise.”

Dodson runs Featherproof Books, a small independent book publishing company, and will teach the Echo Magazine course at Columbia this fall. His company published Costello’s first novel, The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs, released in 2006. He’s no stranger to reading his work at public book store events or Belmont Avenue.

“It’s probably one of the first places that I checked out when I first came to Chicago,” Dodson said. “Maybe I’ll write something about Berlin.”

The youngest writer chosen to read at the event on Sept. 12 studies fiction writing at Columbia, interns for Dodson at Featherproof Books, and has been a student in Costello’s class. Having grown up on Belmont Avenue, Thomas has plenty of material to work with when she goes to craft a story to read at the event.

“I was raised at Belmont and Clark and Belmont and California,” Thomas said. “All of Belmont Avenue is my home. I just can’t get away from it.”

While most people think of the bustling corner of Belmont and Clark, where thrifty shops and mid-range chain restaurants abound, Thomas is familiar with the lesser known side of Belmont Avenue.

“Once you get past Western Avenue, the street becomes more ethnic. Farther west there are a lot of Polish and Mexican neighborhoods. You’ll see a lot of signs in Polish and Spanish,” Thomas said.

Thomas is also of the opinion that third-person stories are useful in exploring different points of view and connecting to an audience. After reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Thomas feels confident in implementing what she calls the “universal voice.”

The Book Cellar is one of many venues where Chicago writers can read their stories aloud for family, friends, colleagues, fellow writers and people who happen to be taking a stroll past the bookstore. Thomas will also be reading at The Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont Ave., on Oct. 5 with Costello.

This community of talented writers aims to entertain without an instrument or even a stage on which to stand. The Second City/Third Person reading at The Book Cellar promises to celebrate good, old-fashioned creative expression that will invite a “wide range of emotional response,” Costello said.

“There are quite a few readings that just got laughs because it’s at a bar or some of them can be very ponderous and serious,” Costello said. “We really have a wide range of stories. It’s great to see what each writer brings to the table.”

Second City/Third Person will take place at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. at 8 p.m. on Sept. 12. Alexis Thomas, Brian Costello, Natalie Edwards and Jill Summers will be reading at The Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont Ave. at 8 p.m. on Oct. 5. 21+. No cover.