One day in April 2019, DL Mullen was wandering around Halsted and Grand. Right before then, she had just left another project that she was trying to get off the ground, Athenaeum Librarium, which was supposed to be like a Soho House for book lovers. From construction delays to the building flooding, things kept going wrong, and Mullen knew that she’d have to put it on hold. Her dream of founding a luxurious membership club, library, and coworking space would have to wait, even after partnering with tech giants like Google. Then she walked past a retail space for lease. She didn’t have an interest in opening a retail space, but figured she’d inquire anyway. She made a call. The landlord arrived within 30 minutes. By the time she went home that day, the place was hers.
“I had no clue what I was actually going to do with the space,” says Mullen, an entrepreneur with a PhD in literary theory. “I just started knocking down walls and painting, and then I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to put my favorite things in here and we’ll see what happens.'” And that turned into Semicolon Bookstore, the city’s only Black woman-owned bookstore.
Semicolon opened a year ago, in July 2019, and while Mullen wishes there could’ve been more pizzazz for the anniversary, it’s an important milestone nonetheless. “Thank goodness [Athenaeum] didn’t work, because I would be broke by now,” laughs Mullen. During the pandemic, she’s thrown herself into her work to make it so that it’s not just surviving, but thriving as a community-oriented business.
Pre-pandemic, Semicolon doubled as an art gallery, with an artist-in-residence taking over the downstairs exhibition space for two months at a time, and Mullen and her team coordinating books to go along with it. One example was early this year, when Semicolon hosted photographer W.D. Floyd for an exhibit called “The Joy: The Visibility of Black Boy Childhood,” coordinating it with books that fit the exhibit (like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man). Curating the books and art together flowed easily to Mullen. “Art creates the same feeling and emotional interest that words do.” She noticed that Semicolon had two types of customers: those who stopped in for the art and stayed for the books, and those who came for the books and ended up falling in love with the art. Artists would give talks about their work, and Mullen would encourage them to hang out in the space. That meshing of art and books encouraged customers to spend more time in the space, developing its own community.
Semicolon has reopened with caution; despite bookselling being a hands-on activity, they’ve been enforcing social distancing and keeping the store extra clean. “If it means consistently having a line outside, that’s perfectly fine,” she says. “Whatever feels safe. And people are so happy to be in a bookstore.”
Maintaining Semicolon as a community space has been a new challenge during the pandemic, but it’s not an impossible one. Mullen isn’t a fan of virtual events, so the regular artist talks and author discussions have been on hold. “It just doesn’t feel the same to have a bunch of faces on a Zoom call, versus people in person when you can actually feel that energy.” But the store has still stayed connected to its mission of focusing on the community through initiatives like #ClearTheShelves, in which Mullen set up a GoFundMe to collect donations to give books, Target gift cards, and cash to CPS students in order to “level the literary playing field as much as possible.” The store’s been connecting with its social media following and focusing on online sales on bookshop.org, which have been “transformative” in ensuring the business’s survival through the pandemic, especially after gaining new customers in the last couple of months.
During the national movement against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, many non-Black Americans headed virtually to Black-owned bookstores to purchase books on anti-racism. Semicolon, like other Black-owned bookstores, dealt with delays and backorders. In turn, many Black booksellers received hateful messages, rude e-mails, and complaints from the very people who were allegedly immersing themselves into anti-racist learning.
But the national news headlines told a different story, framing the problem to seem like a deficiency of Black-owned bookstores: that they couldn’t “handle” the orders, rather than detailing the supply chain slog that contributes to the delays, and the irony of the fact that the vitriol that was coming from people who were supposedly “working on themselves.”
Mullen tweeted her frustration with the headlines through the Semicolon account. The exasperation was compounded by the fact that she didn’t see journalists explaining how the book supply chain worked: if a book was backordered, it meant that publishers not only had to reprint, but they had to factor the reprints into their existing print schedule, resulting in delays. “A lot of people were buying the same anti-racist titles–none of which were new, by the way–they’d been out for years. So by this point, there was no need to have a billion copies of them on hand,” Mullen explains. “So the mess that was created looked like, ‘Oh, it’s taking three weeks to get my order,’ when the reason why it’s taking three to six weeks to get your order is because this book doesn’t currently exist in its physical form anywhere, because they’ve all been purchased. Bookstores have absolutely no issue fulfilling orders, so long as the book exists.”
Mullen curates author events to what’s of interest to her customers, including moderators, who she scouts for by perusing the the #bookstagrammers hashtag on Instagram. “We can’t just do like the popular book and the popular author because it’s likely not that popular with the Black community.” When Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments came out, she remembers people lining up at other booksellers, but at Semicolon, it didn’t sell. “It’s a little more effort that’s put into things instead of just picking an author of a popular book and having them come sign.”
Mullen is the third Black woman to own a bookstore in Chicago, after Desiree Sanders and Toneal M. Jackson, and currently is the only one. A year into owning Semicolon, Mullen has realized that being a Black bookseller has more pressure and responsibility attached than she originally anticipated. “Black booksellers are a lot different–they have what seems to be a different kind of focus. I think naturally Black booksellers are going to be more focused on the community than the dollars and cents. I also recognize that Black bookselling is a different beast. We’re just making our own way,” she says. “When I started it was kind of, of course I’m going to do community work if anybody comes in, but otherwise, I just want to have a good time. As we’ve been open, I’m recognizing how necessary it is that we are here, and the responsibility that we have to our community, and to the families and the kids who need us to stay here.”
In the future, Mullen hopes to expand Semicolon to other cities with strong graffiti art scenes, like Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. She also hopes to retain the new customers that they’ve gained in the past few months. Her customers before were 80 percent Black. Now, her customers are split 50/50 between Black and non-Black. Mullen says, “I think when people hear about a Black-owned space naturally non-Black people are kind of timid about coming. And once non-Black people come into the space, they feel surprisingly comfortable and I’m like, ‘Yeah! Just come in.'” v