A Literary Long Weekend in Las Vegas
A Harry Potter-Themed Café, the Chapel Joan Didion Dragged, and More
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As the costliness of coastal cities skyrockets, more and more creatives have sought sanctuary in more affordable locales. The literary scene in Las Vegas isn’t new by any means, but its diverse offerings are multiplying at warp speed. Thanks to a recent acquisition by the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, The Believer magazine now lives here, and the city continues to host the growing Vegas Valley Book Festival, an event which attracts over 10,000 attendees and authors from around the world. In recent years, the festival has hosted talks by Adam Johnson, Cheryl Strayed, Colum McCann, and Aimee Bender (among many others).
Throughout the year, Black Mountain Institute—situated on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus—brings established and emerging writers for readings and panel discussions that are open to the general public. The Writer’s Block, a local independent bookstore, has provided another literary epicenter by both supporting Vegas writers and providing a venue for visiting authors, such as Vu Tran, Laura McBride, and Okey Ndibe. Today, the Vegas literary scene is a product of increasing interconnectedness thanks to local visionaries and small businesses that have pushed for spaces and events where art and writing can flourish.
· FRIDAY ·
Located across the street from Sunset Park, Sunrise Coffee (3130 E Sunset Rd) serves organic fair trade coffee, pastries, and vegetarian or vegan sandwiches and wraps. A favorite hangout for writers, the shop occasionally hosts book releases by local authors, and Henderson Libraries recently added a mobile library kiosk to the patio so that patrons can access free books. When the weather allows, peruse a book and enjoy a matcha latte or an alien burrito on the patio. After your coffee, you can take a stroll through the neighboring park, which features natural dunes that once typified the local landscape.
If you can make it past the creepy clown sign in front of Circus Circus (2880 S Las Vegas Blvd), you can gamble on the only slot machine carousel in Vegas. The top level of the carousel serves as an ice cream parlor, although it used to be a bar, which was made famous in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The casino offers daily circus acts, such as trapeze artists, jugglers, and clowns. As Hunter S. Thompson describes it, “you’re down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen-year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver-painted Polacks.”
A short drive outside of Vegas can land you in a century-old saloon with walls made of stamped tin (perforated by a few bullet holes). The Pioneer Saloon (310 NV-161) is nestled in Goodsprings, a tiny town just southwest of the city, the fading remnant of a once thriving mining operation. The people at the bar will tell you how Clark Gable drank there, waiting to hear whether his wife Carole Lombard had survived a plane crash. More verifiably, Pioneer Saloon served as a location for the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; alas, the scene was left on the cutting room floor. The place is a favorite gathering spot for the UNLV creative writing students, especially when there’s Friday karaoke. Even if karaoke isn’t your thing, come for the remote Old West setting and the fire pits. If you go before sunset, you can stop for a photo op at Ugo Rondinone’s colorful rock sculpture, Seven Magic Mountains.
Bad Owl Coffee
If you’re a huge fan of those books about wizards, you might enjoy the unofficially themed Bad Owl Coffee (10575 S Eastern Ave), where you can order a “Butter Brew Latte” with your “Wizard Meltdown” sandwich (featuring melted mozzarella, parmesan, and cheddar on rye bread with guacamole and roasted tomatoes). They also serve Nitrobrew (nitrogen infused cold coffee).
Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art
The Marjorie Barrick Museum (UNLV campus) serves the Las Vegas community, as well as the students currently attending UNLV. In the past, the museum has offered storytelling sessions and hosted talks and readings by visiting authors, artists, and art critics. Since the exhibits change, there is always something new for locals to consider.
To enter the building, you’ll pass a charming xeric garden featuring drought-resistant plants—a testament to the natural beauty and sustainability of the desert landscape. Within the museum, you can find contemporary art as well as, according to the website, “a large number of cultural artifacts, ranging from examples of skilled weaving by members of the Southwest’s indigenous Paiute to thousand-year-old ceramics from the diverse cultures of ancient Mesoamerica.” Admission is generally free, although there is a suggested voluntary contribution. Visit the museum’s website for hours and a list of events.
The Writer’s Block (1020 Fremont St) is currently the only independent bookstore in Las Vegas, so the shop serves as a community hub for literary events. Located in downtown Las Vegas, this is the perfect spot to buy a book and catch a reading by both local and visiting writers before grabbing a drink across the street at Atomic Liquors (917 Fremont St)—named for when customers would stand on the roof to catch a glimpse of the mushroom clouds triggered by nuclear bomb tests north of town. Atomic recently added an adjacent restaurant simply called The Kitchen at Atomic; you can also find dinner at one of the many topnotch restaurants within walking distance.
The Writer’s Block offers free creative writing classes for kids and teenagers (ages 5 – 18); these workshops feature diverse themes such as mythology, “reimagining fairytales,” and comic writing. They even have offered a bookmaking workshop. The store also hosts writers’ groups for adults and multiple reading groups, including the popular Bourbon Book Club—and yes, bourbon is provided for the discussion. Check the website to see which events are happening during your next visit.
Located in the hip and growing Arts District, Velveteen Rabbit (1218 S Main St) serves artisanal cocktails and specialty beers amidst dark vintage décor. The bar has been a friend to the literary arts, hosting readings and publication parties (including for the literary magazine Witness). If you want to order from the seasonal menu, you’ll be handed what looks like a chapbook. Each menu functions as a mini zine, featuring local artists and writers. Read a poem and mull over some of the most delicious and innovative cocktails in town with an array of curated ingredients like turmeric-ginger syrup, spirulina, or Amaro Montenegro.
The Peppermill Restaurant and Fireside Lounge*
11:00 PM (or anytime, really)
Many a late night has been wrapped up at the Peppermill (2985 Las Vegas Blvd), a known favorite of MacArthur-winning art critic and writer Dave Hickey, located on the edge of the Strip. Inside, you’ll find cozy booths and an abundance of neon trim. In the lounge, try to sit near the iconic fire pit—couches encircle the flame, which floats over bright blue water.
*The name of the lounge at the Peppermill serves as yet another point of contention between John D’Agata (About a Mountain) and Jim Fingal, his fact-checker, when they endlessly debate the writer’s responsibility to facts in essayistic writing in the book The Lifespan of a Fact. In response to D’Agata’s insistence that aesthetic purposes can justify a deviation from fact, Fingal goes deep into the verification of each detail, including the name of the lounge. He writes, “But the website of the Peppermill makes it seem like the whole place is called just ‘Peppermill,’ with the lounge and restaurant given equal billing. So this should actually be called the ‘Peppermill Fireside Lounge.’”
· SUNDAY ·
Driving Tour, Wedding Chapels
Before you leave town, drive by the plethora of fast-serve wedding chapels located in downtown Las Vegas. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion provides a biting cultural analysis of the Vegas chapel industry, which, as she puts it, sells “the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it.” In particular, she describes a perfunctory wedding at The Little Church of the West (4617 S Las Vegas Blvd); the building, with its cedar exterior and California redwood interior, has been moved three times. The website boasts that the chapel is “the oldest existing structure” on the Strip.
Valley of Fire State Park
Explore the Vegas area’s earliest signs of literature. Pack a lunch and picnic surrounded by Martian red rock formations. Within an hour drive of Las Vegas, Valley of Fire (19450 Valley of Fire Hwy, Overton, NV) offers several sites where you can see petroglyphs made by Ancient Pueblo Peoples.