Booking it

Curbside Splendor turning the page for new Chicago authors

By Veronica Wilson,

For RedEye

June 5, 2014


A publishing company was never part of the plan. The name belonged to a college band. The book that started it all began as a simple writing exercise.

Whether you credit an entrepreneurial spirit, love of literature or too many nights of drinking and sharing ideas, Curbside Splendor was born of deep passion.

Victor David Giron always wanted to be creative, hoping to go to college for philosophy. Abandoning that dream out of respect for the work his immigrant parents put into establishing themselves in the U.S., he instead majored in business at the University of Illinois.

But that creative itch never went away, and as he began to document high school memories, Giron realized he had the beginnings of a novel. He wrote the semi-autobiographical "Sophomoric Philosophy," but when it came time to publish, the process of selling the book seemed like a "black pit."

Instead, Giron forged his own path, teaming up with artistic friends to found a fake publishing company, Curbside Splendor. Named after his band at U. of I., the group released "Sophomoric Philosophy" in October 2010.

Fake or not, Curbside Splendor sparked something in Giron, and he began to participate in more literary events. In 2011 he came across Jacob Knabb, then-editor in chief of Another Chicago magazine. While spending time scheming together on barstools, Giron and Knabb realized they had found what they needed to grow a successful business.

"I'd been on the scene in Chicago for a decade and done tons of different readings and parties and all kinds of different things and curated monthly series, so for me it was kind of old," said Knabb, 38, who had dreamed of taking his knowledge of Chicago's literary scene to steer his magazine toward publishing. "I saw it all again through fresh eyes in talking to Victor. And he had all this excitement and I did too."

Giron, 40, understood Knabb's ideas and thought his own business skills might help turn the ideas into reality.

"I just sort of was drawn to his personality and his passion for books," Giron said.

They started publishing books, with Giron at the helm as president and publisher and Knabb working as editor in chief in charge of acquisitions. Success came fast with Amber Sparks' "May We Shed These Human Bodies," named the Best Small Press Debut of 2012 by The Atlantic, and "Chicago Stories—40 Dramatic Fictions," by Michael Czyzniejewski, which also garnered national attention. As a result, Curbside was picked up by Consortium Book Sales and Distributors in 2012.

"In order to make that sort of leap, we had to start operating as a real publishing company," Giron said.

This meant no more publishing on a whim—these days, Curbside's schedule is planned well in advance. The duo hired their first full-time staffer, managing editor Naomi Huffman, 25, a longtime fan of Curbside through her role as assistant literary editor at Newcity.

"[Giron and Knabb] are two men that have huge separate lives aside from Curbside," said Huffman, noting Giron's position in the finance department of a large spirits company, Knabb's teaching job in Lake Forest and their growing families. "They have all of these things that can prove to be distractions or can prove to be enough to fulfill and make a life happy, but they're still very dedicated to Curbside and making it into a profitable business. They're also very dedicated to publishing emerging voices and Chicago voices in particular."

Huffman has demonstrated her own devotion, allowing her West Town apartment to become the company's headquarters. Her living room is piled with two dozen boxes of books.

"That means that everything that I do at Curbside happens at my kitchen table," she said. "Interns will be working with me out of my apartment."

Though Curbside's catalog continues to grow, with eight books being released this spring and summer and 12 more following during the fall and winter, its authors will continue to experience the dedication Bill Hillmann, author of "The Old Neighborhood," felt while releasing his book.

The team accompanied 32-year-old Hillmann, a longtime boxer, to the Golden Gloves boxing finals, where Huffman and Curbside intern Lanna Flack sat at a merchandise table selling his books.

"Damn man, these are really cool people, man, to give up their Friday and Saturday night to hang out at a boxing event and, like, get hit on by dirty old men and stuff," Hillmann remembers thinking. "You can just tell that they really love what they're doing. That's rare in life, that you can find people that are able to do what they really love."

Veronica Wilson is a RedEye special contributor.

Meet the authors

Samantha Irby, Bill Hillmann and Megan Stielstra will speak at this year's Printers' Row Lit Fest. Check out their books before you go.


"Meaty" by Samantha Irby

After her blog, "Bitches Gotta Eat," grew in popularity, Samantha Irby, 34, was approached by multiple publishers about a book deal—but most wanted to use what was already on her blog.

"I think it's so crazy to charge people for something you put on the Internet for free," Irby said. "I wanted a new challenge and wanted to do something else."

While Irby believes her readers appreciate the honesty in her personal essays, she said it since has led to some awkward conversations.

"It is weird when someone is talking to me and then I think about how detailed I've been about my butthole," she said.

She also struggles to find the perfect description for her book, so here are a few attempts:

>> "It's not for boring people who are horrible. If you're not boring or horrible, you'll love it."

>> "Hilarious hilariousness with a side of hilarious."

>> "A dumb book for dummies by a dummy, a smart book for smarties by a smarty, an attempting to be funny book for people who think they understand jokes."

"The Old Neighborhood" by Bill Hillmann

Bill Hillmann's book takes readers on a journey through his own upbringing in Edgewater.

"I describe it as a kid struggling to find himself in a changing and dynamic neighborhood," Hillmann, 32, said. "He's verging on the point where he's going to end up taking somebody's life. He really needs somebody to save him."

While the book does sprinkle in some fiction, Hillmann says a lot of the situations and events are real things he's still grappling with.

Hillmann said he still can't believe the work put in by Knabb and the Curbside team, especially in creating the perfect cover for his book. He and Knabb spent a day hanging out in Edgewater with a lowrider and one of Hillmann's boxer friends, shooting images until they created the perfect piece. "It's the coolest cover I could've imagined," he said.


"Once I was Cool" by Megan Stielstra

A few weeks after beginning to speak to Curbside, Megan Stielstra, 38, found out that one of her essays would be included in the Best American Essays 2013.

"That was such a huge moment for me for all sorts of different reasons," she said. "To see that the work that I was crafting to speak out loud had value on the page as well and could mean something to readers in the same way that it meant something to a listening audience."

While she admitted that putting art out into the world is intimidating, the intimidation doubles when it comes to personal essays.

"Here it is. This is me. Or more to the point, these are many different portraits of me," she said. "These are many quick parts of myself at different points in my life, things that meant different things to me at the time. You're trying to create honest pictures of yourself—and how do you do that?"

Printer's Row Lit Fest

10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Dearborn Street between Congress and Polk streets