Early on a cool July evening several Wednesdays ago, sunlight streamed into the front room of Danny’s Tavern in Bucktown. Around the bar, small knots of people sipped their beers and chatted with the bartender, who rang up their pints on an old-fashioned register that responded with a satisfying clatter. In the darkened back room, candles in little glasses flickered yellow, barely illuminating the low stools and ottomans, a pair of turntables, and a large speaker covered with neat piles of the free literary broadside The2ndHand. At 7:40 Greg Purcell stepped up to a mike that stood next to a rickety table. “OK, people,” he said. “You have five minutes to get your heads together, and then we’re going to start.”

The tavern was hosting the 23rd installment of the Danny’s Reading Series, an event launched in August 2001 by poet Joel Craig and Purcell, a poet, fiction writer, and art critic who runs the online journal No Slander. Craig and Purcell met in spring 2001, when Rebecca Wolff, publisher of the New York-based literary journal Fence, came to town to speak on an Art Chicago panel Purcell had organized on writers and small presses. Wolff was a friend of Craig’s, and after the panel she and Purcell wandered over to Danny’s, where Craig was deejaying. The next day, following a reading Wolff did at Quimby’s, Craig and Purcell got to talking, and Craig mentioned that Danny’s managers Ken Kordich and Kevin Stacy had offered to let him use the bar for readings.

“I didn’t know many people involved with literature in Chicago,” says Craig, “so I’d never acted on it. Greg was also interested in hosting a reading and had some people in mind, so we exchanged information and eventually met up to discuss it.”

“Joel and I wanted to create a night out, something fun, much as you’d have at a musical performance or a movie,” says Purcell. “It’s hard to find readings structured like that, where you can just go have a drink, sit down, and listen to good readings in relative comfort. Either you find yourself in an academic institution around three in the afternoon on a Sunday or you have to sit through the white noise of an open mike or slam event.”

The first night, says Purcell, was “an August scorcher–really hot.” Still, 40 to 50 people showed up to hear Chicago Review editors Matthias Regan and Eric Elshtain read their poetry. Since then readings have taken place more or less monthly, with word going out via e-mail, flyers, and the No Slander site and participants ranging from established local names like Aleksandar Hemon and Alex Shakar to out-of-towners like Mary Caponegro, Joe Wenderoth, and Sam Lipsyte. (Former U.S. poet laureate Mark Strand is lined up for some time in the fall.) The Baffler packed the place one winter night with a lineup of its own contributors; another night a squad of music writers, including Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis and the Reader’s Monica Kendrick, wrapped up an evening of their own work with a rambunctious free-for-all discussion on the state of local rock criticism.

Last month the reading doubled as a release party for the 11th issue of The2ndHand. “Before we start,” Purcell told the audience, “I’d like you all to get out your wallets and buy Joel Craig a drink. I want to see him totally soused, ’cause today’s his birthday.” The 20 or so people assembled whooped and cheered. The magazine’s editor, Todd Dills, kicked off the evening with “I Like to Stand in Traffic,” the tale of a disaffected doorman at a bar in a depressed part of town. He was followed by contributor Brian Costello, who dedicated his reading to “any big-time agent or editor in the audience looking for hot young talent…or any girl in the audience who will go out on a date with me this weekend.” After a short break, Dills banged loudly on the bottom of a pot with a spoon, and Purcell, Costello, and 2nd Hand contributor Paul A. Toth and his wife, Kathy–who’d come down from Michigan–joined him at the mike for a group reading of Toth’s “Think Like a Mountain.”

For an hour and a half the crowd listened respectfully–it was probably the quietest tavern in town. By nine things were wrapping up. It was dark outside, and the front room had filled with drinkers apparently uninterested in literature. Readers and listeners alike repaired to the bar for another round, and someone broke out a birthday cake.

“If Chicago wants a literary community,” says Purcell, “its first obligation is to get its writers drunk and set them across the bar from each other. Get them talking to one another. Writers don’t get out of the house enough, not like artists and musicians do….At the very least we should throw the occasional party.”

This month Purcell’s moving to New York, where he hopes to finish his science-fiction novel and a manuscript of poetry; Bridge magazine poetry editor John Beer is stepping in as Craig’s new partner. On Wednesday, August 13, Danny’s will host a second-anniversary reading and going-away party for Purcell. Readers include Purcell, Beer, poet Raymond Bianchi, and others. It starts at 7:30 at Danny’s Tavern, 1951 W. Dickens. Call 773-489-6457 or see www.noslander.com for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andre J. Jackson.