How A Chicago Bookstore Connects Local Students To Works By Diverse Authors

Semicolon Bookstore and Gallery was founded in 2019 with the primary goal of increasing literacy rates in Chicago. While working towards this mission, the store became a beacon of the community that puts literary works from people of color – including recognizable names like Octavia Butler, Colson Whitehead, and Toni Morrison, and many independent authors – directly into the hands of local students who may not have found their work otherwise.

As evidence of this, Semicolon has donated more than $350,000 in books to local students as part of its #CleartheShelves book giveaway — and this during a global pandemic that saw many bookstores struggle.

90% or more of the books found in Semicolon were written by authors of color and are personally curated by staff members, which only further helps bring attention to unique voices and perspectives. DL Moore, the proprietress of Semicolon, understands the responsibility that comes with running the only brick-and-mortar bookstore in the entire city to be owned by a Black woman. But she also wants visitors to understand that no two Black-owned businesses are alike.

“The pressure comes from a lot of non-Black people who like to think that every Black store or every Black-owned situation is going to look, feel, and be the same, and that’s not the case,” says Moore. “So we constantly have to remind people that, yes, I, am a singular Black woman and run my stores this way and that other singular Black woman or Black male can very well run their store differently, and you are allowed to love them both.”

She also wants to make it very clear that supporting a Black-owned business should be viewed as a fair exchange of goods and services instead of as an action that someone can then tout as their good deed for the day.

“You have a choice in where you choose to spend your money,” says Moore. “And I love that you’re spending it here, but you doing that is not doing us a favor. And that’s the main thing that needs to be changed in the mindset of people right now. You would be surprised by the number of people who ask us for a discount.”

Despite the occasional visitor who comes to Semicolon with their own interests in mind, the store and gallery space has built a strong, vibrant, and loyal community over the past two years.

“I would say about 70% of the people who support us come back and support us again,” says Moore. “And we know their names and we know what they like to read. And that’s what happens when you support any community business. You get to know the people who own it. You get to know the people who work there and you get to have the time of your life.”

The support from Semicolon’s community has been so strong, in fact, that its operations moved from its original location of 1,200 square feet to one with 5,000. The original location has since been turned into a used bookstore with prices of $8 or less with long-term plans to turn the shop into a book library for Chicago Public School students.

In regards to other long-term plans, Moore is currently exploring the possibility of opening two additional locations in New York City and Miami in 2022. Her hopes are that she can eventually get a location in Times Square and use the proceeds to create more magical experiences for visitors.