'Semicolon' Opens in Chicago as City's Only Black Woman-Owned Bookstore

Chicago is now home to a Black woman-owned bookstore. The city’s newest bookstore, located in West Town, opened its doors to the public on July 9 with a party and mural unveiling.

Semicolon, a bookstore and community space located in West Town, is one of just a few woman-owned bookstores in the Windy City and the only one owned by a Black woman. Owner DL Mullen created a vibrant space with a mural by street artist Ahmad Lee, colorful furniture, and personal touches. “Explaining art is really [key] to how people understand it and connect to it,” the author and editor with a PhD in literary theory told Chicago Magazine. “It became important to me to bridge art and words.”

Semicolon will feature a rotating gallery space downstairs called “the living room.” Mullen told The North Star she hopes to feature African American street artists in Chicago monthly as well as frequently hosting author and artist talks. “I wanted literature and art to kinda collide and create this experience that would further connect the two worlds — or at least cause a lover of one to want to know more about the other,” Mullen said in a statement.

Mullen initially wanted to open a space that was a mix of a library, a collaborative space, and a membership-only club called Athenaeum Librarium. However, several construction delays forced her to switch her focus. She told The North Star that she came upon the space that would become her bookstore and signed the lease the same day. A month later Semicolon held its soft opening and by July 9 the bookstore had its real opening.

“Semicolon represents the point in a sentence where the author could stop but chooses to keep going and that’s what this space felt like for me. I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to wait. I want to keep going and get my bookstore open,” Mullen explained to The North Star about the bookstore’s name.

The bookstore’s first event since its grand opening will be held on August 16. “Books, Bourbon, and Basquiat” will allow attendees to enjoy “curated bourbon-based cocktails aptly named after Basquiat pieces.” The event will feature small bites and samples of six different brands.

Mullen said she has been surprised by the reaction the bookstore has reecived. “The community seems excited, ecstatic that we’re here,” she explained.

A list curated by African American Literature Book Club shows more than 100 Black-owned bookstores around the country. The Windy City was once home to Da Book Joint, an African American owned and operated bookstore located on the Southeast Side. The since-closed bookstore was owned and operated by Verlean Singletary.

Illinois is also home to another Black woman-owned bookstore in Maywood, near Chicago. Founder and owner Nzingha Nommo opened Afriware Books, Co. in 1992. The African-centered bookstore, gift shop, and cultural event center aims to be a platform to share African culture and heritage.

Mullen told The North Star that she understands the importance of owning the city’s sole Black woman-owned bookstore. “It’s a ton of responsibility to me because I want to make sure that we’re well represented,” she said. “It means everything to me. To be able to create something that I love, as a Black woman, that other Black women and people can love just as much is a huge deal,” Mullen told Chicago Magazine. “You don’t get into bookselling looking for money; it’s really hard to build up your career to actually open a bookstore. I feel grateful that I’ve been able to do that.”

A recent report by The New York Times found that independent bookstores, once threatened by big chains, are thriving around the country. Barnes & Noble, the largest American bookstore chain, has struggled financially and recently agreed to sell at $6.50 a share to hedge fund Elliott Management. The bookseller has seen a decline in sales in its 2019 fiscal year and sales of the Nook e-reader and e-books declined for the seventh year in a row. However, smaller, independent bookstores have experienced a resurgence thanks to events and non book merchandise. Independent bookstore trade group American Booksellers Association boasts of 1,887 members with 2,524 locations as of May 15, The New York Times reported.

The brick and mortar stores are also becoming community hotspots. “As more people spend more time online, they are looking for deeper ways to spend time with the community,” Ryan Raffaelli, a Harvard Business School assistant professor who studied independent bookstores’ revival, told The New York Times. “Independent bookstores have become anchors of authenticity. This is almost like a social movement.” Mullen told The North Star that she hopes Semicolon will be able to recreate the same customer loyalty that has helped other independent bookstores thrive.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.