When you drive into Lincoln Square, you might expect a scaled-down version of downtown Chicago. Instead of every big brand-name store and restaurant, you can find the smaller (and way less expensive) versions of everything. One such shop is the Book Cellar (Like seller, get it? It’s a pun) book store, which is like a slightly shrunken Barnes and Noble—and so much cooler.
Walking in the front door, you can pick up a free copy of “The Onion,” then choose one of two things to do. Go right, and you see shelves and shelves and shelves lined, almost crammed, with tons of books. Under each of the featured books, there is even a hand-written review by a customer or a critic. New books, old books, biographies, mysteries, you can find everything. Go left, and you walk into a café with tables that don’t shake like an earthquake in Indonesia and beverage menus. There you can buy freshly-made, actually good-tasting coffee or tea, or get a free glass of water (Yes, it’s free, just like it should be).
The third Monday of every month brings a change of scenery to the Book Cellar. The tables and chairs are moved promptly at 6:45 p.m. into a semi-circle surrounding a microphone. Everything is still pretty quiet until about 7:00, people shuffle through and some sit down skeptically, when a man and a woman come on the makeshift stage and yell into the microphone. Suddenly everyone in the book store is alert and attentive. The two people on stage are Keith Ecker and Alison Lyon, the producers of Essay Fiesta, a monthly event in which amateur and professional writers share their personal stories.
Monday, Feb. 20, the Book Cellar was home to shrieks of laughter for two hours as the Essay Fiesta commenced. After Keith and Alison sang their corny introductory song, Alison kicked off the night with her non-fiction story about getting back into the dating pool. Eventually, Keith reads his cowboy essay, and a line of people ready to read their stories forms, including Niles West’s very own junior Rachael Kossy. Meanwhile, the Book Cellar gets more crowded as customers want in on the fun and fill the seats. Among the readers were professional and highly-educated writers who wove simple stories into hilarious capers or captivating tales.
Don’t let the word “essay” throw you off; these aren’t exactly the Ralph Waldo Emerson kinds of essays that we read in school. Just think of this as a story-telling night. Essay Fiesta has the perfect balance of humorous and serious stories, ranging from Kossy’s account of her father’s near-fatal encounter with a train to Jason Economus’ ode to the beautiful women of his 20s.
“Essay Fiesta is so fun! I think it’s really great because these writers can read their stories without shame or fear of judgment, and there’s just this great sense of togetherness,” said junior Sophia Catalano.
I was smiling so much that my face still hurts. This past Essay Fiesta was my first time as an audience member, and I am definitely going again.
The next Essay Fiesta will be held on March 19 at the Book Cellar, located at 4736 North Lincoln Avenue #1 in Chicago, IL 60625. Learn more about Essay Fiesta online.