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Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Town

Semicolon Bookstore Moving To Larger Space In Wicker Park After 2 Years In River West

The Black-owned shop and gallery space is quadrupling its size in a new location on Division after exploding in popularity in the past year.

Semicolon Bookstore owner Danielle Mullen outside her soon to be former storefront in River West on Aug. 31, 2021
Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago
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WICKER PARK — A popular Black-woman-owned bookstore is moving into a sprawling space in Wicker Park next month. 

Semicolon Bookstore has operated at 515 N. Halsted St. in River West for two years, gaining popularity for its focus on books by authors of color and rotating artwork from local street artists. 

The Halsted Street location has been closed for in-person shopping for the past few weeks while founder and lead bookseller Danielle Mullen and her team relocate to 1714 W. Division St., a space about four times larger. They plan to open Oct. 2 at the new spot.

Mullen said she is ecstatic about the transition — but has a few jitters, too.

“This is very scary, I am shook. [Our current space] is very controllable, it’s small, I can run it by myself,” Mullen said. “If everything fails in the new space, I really have to depend more on my team, I really have to depend more on our community to keep us going in that space, to make sure we can afford it. And so it’s just gonna be a lot more getting to know the community over there.”

Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago
The future home of Semicolon Bookstore at 1714 W. Division St. in Wicker Park

Semicolon began in 2019 when Mullen leased the space on Halsted on a whim, building it into a community staple where 90 percent of the books are penned by people of color.

“And it’s not something that you have to notice in the store. But that’s what we are about: community and getting authors of color seen and noticed,” Mullen said.

Business was steady at first, but the bookstore’s popularity exploded after last year’s racial justice protests, and the support hasn’t let up, Mullen said. 

“Last year, when all of the riots and stuff were happening, I think people were being more purposeful in where they chose to shop,” Mullen said. “And recognizing that Black bookstores, with the barriers to entry that currently exist, it is super hard for us to even get started. And so you know, we do also deserve that support and that attention. And that’s pretty much where people started noticing us, and they’ve stuck with us.” 

The influx of customers meant Semicolon began to outgrow its narrow storefront and gallery. Mullen started looking for a larger space that was also ADA-compliant. 

“We didn’t expect to grow so quickly. We thought this space was going to be enough for the next three to five years. It’s just not,” Mullen said. 

The store in Wicker Park will have a cafe, an expanded children’s section and a 60-foot-long wall that will feature murals by six artists, each of a character holding a book. 

Mullen said she’s grateful for increased patronage that’s allowed her to expand. But she wants people to see Semicolon and other Black-owned businesses as essential parts of the local economy, not just boxes to be checked off. 

“It’s a nice feeling. We appreciate it,” Mullen said. “But I think sometimes people approach Black businesses like they’re doing us a favor by being here. And that’s not the approach that’s supposed to occur. We’re supposed to be mutually beneficial, as are all businesses.

“We have so many people who walk by and they take a picture in front of the sign and tag us and keep walking. And it’s like, ‘Yo, we saw you. Actually come in and support us!’” 

In Wicker Park, Semicolon will continue hosting events and gatherings, including a book signing with actor Will Smith in November. Mullen said she’s doing everything she can to make the the store’s environment as welcoming and open as the original. 

“I recognize that this is not a normal bookstore. And it’s not meant to be,” Mullen said. “There are a ton of spaces, a ton of bookstores in the city that Black people don’t feel comfortable in. They do feel comfortable here, and that’s important for us.” 

Semicolon will open one final time at its Halsted location Saturday for a close-out sale, offering 25 percent off whatever is left in stock.

Proceeds will benefit the store’s Clear the Shelves initiative, which donates books and money to fund literacy efforts in Chicago Public Schools. 

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