The popular Chicago reading series Two Cookie Minimum has held residency at the Hungry Brain since 2012, however the Roscoe Village bar announced its plans to close earlier this fall. Founder and curator Johnny Misfit (neé Wawrzaszek) addresses the closing of the Hungry Brain, the future of Two Cookie Minimum, and why live lit matters in this exclusive interview.
Tell our readers a little bit more about Two Cookie Minimum’s relationship with the Hungry Brain.
The choice was simple. The series began in Roscoe Village at Fritz Pastry, which was in walking distance to my apartment — I had to lug a small speaker and mic there for each reading. When Fritz changed owners, I looked for another walkable venue. A friend who hosts the Well Slept Film fest had an event at the Brain, and I was like, this is a good place. At the film fest, I remembered that Hungry Brain was where I read for the first time in Chicago. It was in 2009 and a zinester and now ex-Chicagoan, Michelle Aiello, hosted an Ephemera Fest (which coincidentally was a reading similar to Two Cookie in the sense that there was a variety of talent showcased). In 2012 when the people behind You, Me, Them, Everybody allowed me to book a few nights at the bar, I asked to have a monthly slot. For the next two and a half years I booked monthly readings. The series couldn’t have grown without their support.
What made the Hungry Brain such an extraordinary venue for Two Cookie Minimum?
I feel the eccentricity of the bar, with its oddities and art on the wall, the killer music selection on the jukebox, and the revolving selection of tap beers… it’s the best home for Two Cookie. There is never a weird vibe when entering the doors; it could be open for a performance or a chill night of drinking. When people walk in during a reading, that fact makes sense. And if people aren’t into a reading, they leave without being disruptive. It’s not like reading at a bar while a sports game is on. The entertainment is on the stage, and if not, it’s at your table. And the Brain has a great staff. There’s Dan, our favorite bartender, with a towel slung over his shoulder, pouring drinks and telling jokes. And Merle, who always has a smile on her face when you walk in, to tend to our audio tech needs. Plus, the bar attracts a good clientele. I rate this by the graffiti that ends up on the Two Cookie promo posters.
How has news of the bar closing affected your outlook on Two Cookie Minimum?
Should there be a Two Cookie Minimum? This is a question that I began thinking about this fall and with the bar closure, I am forced to come up with an answer. I’m a pessimist so I look at things as half empty. Oh who really needs another reading series? Oh who cares? This is a thankless gig, etc. Then I thought, well how many people have read here for their first performance in public? About a dozen. What communities does this series serve? Zinesters, comics artists, students, self-published authors. How many people come out each month that have never been here? There are always a few new faces. When I look at the facts, I feel that the series provides something that people care about. We don’t do stand up, open mic, live lit stuff. The majority of readings in Chicago offer a lot of that, with just enough changes to differentiate them. And they are good at what they do. Maybe Two Cookie is a good place for the types of talent and communities it welcomes to the stage. Each month when I book the lineup, I selfishly think, what would I want to see? And then I book the show. I am proud of how there is a variety of stories told in various forms, from comics, shadow puppet shows, poetry, creative nonfiction, song, etc. This is what makes Two Cookie. But mostly with the bar closure happening so fast, I felt that the series isn’t going to end without a party. So until I feel enough is enough and book a be-all-end-all-extravaganza, I will continue to do this somewhere.
Have you sought out other venues for your reading series? If so, which ones?
I’ve made a list and scoped out places. There is a lot that will be lost from having to move. The Brain is unlike anywhere else and it will never be duplicated. Will there be a stage, a good bar, minimal lighting, what neighborhood is it in, does the tamale guy come here, do I need to keep the same monthly slot on the first Tuesday, etc.? Who knows? I do know that a new space has to be accessible, it has to allow for a screen (to show comics and presentations), and importantly, it has to allow me to bring in cookies each month. I know there will be no substitute for what I am losing. There is a place out there, but I want to make sure it’s the right fit. It’s like apartment hunting. I don’t want to sign a lease only to find out the water pressure sucks and there are rats living on the porch. A new Two Cookie home will be something I hope to find early in 2015. Honestly, taking the winter off isn’t a bad thing. Last year, the Polar Vortex didn’t deter people coming out. But a break could do a body good.
Why does live lit matter to you?
My performance background started with being in bands, so having a place to perform is necessary to grow your craft as well as support a local scene. Then when I began making zines, this was an extension of that. I used my musical background and transplanted the same ideas toward writing. Some people need a place to try out work and share what they have done. Some people need a place to meet others and realize they do not live in a bubble. When I went back to school in 2009 and took fiction writing classes, one thing the department did was promote the need for students check out any of the number of reading events we are fortunate enough to have in Chicago. Seeing writers share their work in public made me want to provide an outlet that mixed self-publishers with emerging artists. It’s like a literary science project. I welcomed various backgrounds, talents and disciplines to mingle and added free cookies. Supporting Chicago’s literary community, that’s what really important to me.