The last few years have been busy for Danielle Mullen, to say the least. The bookseller and entrepreneur was supposed to be calming down after being diagnosed with cancer in early 2019. Instead, stuck with feeling like she didn’t want to sit still – and longing for a space to combine her love for the art and literature – Mullen decided to open Semicolon library and gallerya community-driven store with a name steeped in metaphor.
“A semicolon represents where an author might choose to stop a sentence but move forward,” she explains. “The semicolon was me deciding to move forward after this diagnosis.”
From the start, Mullen knew that Semicolon wouldn’t be like other bookstores—it would have gallery space with rotating artwork and focus primarily on selling works written by people of color. The operation was small at first, but soon Semicolon began to garner media attention as one of the only black women-owned bookstores in Chicago. Then Covid-19 hit, and soon after, the wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, which brought even more new customers to the store. Flash forward to 2022: In just two years, Semicolon has launched a nonprofit literacyheld in-person signings and, due to increased sales, moved from River West to a larger location in Wicker Park.
“It kind of took off and I still don’t know what I’m doing,” Mullen jokes. “We’re just having a good time.”
Stepping into Wicker Park’s sunny storefront, you’ll see why the shop has built such a devoted fan base. With murals decorating the walls, a particularly cozy kids’ section, and a cafe (plus a drink-friendly food and drink policy), it’s the kind of place that encourages people to hang out, and the store’s vast selection of titles – from science fiction, cookbooks, political theory, contemporary fiction – offers plenty to browse. The magazine’s curation pushes back against what Mullen describes as a tendency to see black literature as a monolith; at this point, Semicolon’s tagline is “changing the narrative,” meaning challenging preconceptions about black bookstore and readership.
“Every day we get to change the narrative of what black literature looks like,” Mullen says. “It has long been thought that black people don’t read when statistically black women buy more books than everyone else. We’re just showing this new narrative and highlighting it for the world or anyone walks around my store can see it.
Mullen will bring a taste of the Semicolon philosophy to Time Out Market Chicago in February for a four-week pop-up shop, as well as three storytelling events for children. Each week in the pop-up store, booksellers from Semicolon will bring a selection of titles centered on a different theme of black literature, from anti-racism basics during “Groundhog Week” to in-depth stories of the Black Panthers, Assata Shakur and other Black Revolutionaries related to the theme of the last week, titled “Liberation”. In between, visitors will also have the opportunity to browse art books as well as works of fiction and non-fiction by Black, LGBTQ+, Latinx, Native, and Asian American authors.
“We’re going to do what we consider to be a slow lead,” Mullen said. “I think it will be great to get to know Semicolon [at the pop-up]and not just through the books, but through the team members who will be working on them. We’re very excited about books – if you want to experience some real literature and literacy excitement, this is a great reason to stop by.
Want to visit the pop-up and find new reading material during Black History Month? The Semicolon Bookstore pop-up store at Time Out Market Chicago will be open Thursday through Sunday from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. from February 3 through February 27. And if you have kids at home, bring them to the market’s second-floor balcony to listen to a storybook picture book read aloud on Saturdays (February 5, 19, and 26).