Chicago’s only black woman-owned bookstore opened in the summer of 2019. Over the past two years, Semicolon has served as a vital and vibrant cultural hub and gallery space. Last summer, as the coronavirus began to tear through our country and small businesses had to close their doors, Semicolon owner DL Mullen continued to find ways to give back to her community. She launched a fundraiser called #ClearTheShelves, which strives to encourage a life-long love of reading by giving free books to Chicago students at an event this May. (At the time of writing this, they have raised $167,822 towards their $200,000 goal.)
But that’s not all! Mullen has been pushing for a national holiday to celebrate these efforts and support readers in low-literacy communities. She has carefully selected Valentine’s Day, hoping people will spread the love. It also falls on Frederick Douglass’ birthday, as well as being at the center of Black History Month. Just this week, she has received the support of Chicago Mayor Lightfoot, who issued an official proclamation. Mark your calendars: February 14th will now be National Black Literacy Day.
We spoke with Semicolon Bookstore owner, activist, and holiday creator DL Mullen about her work, what she’s reading, and what’s next.
Book Marks: What inspired you to open Semicolon? Have you always wanted to open a bookstore?
DL Mullen: Opening Semicolon was a complete accident. I was roaming aimlessly and saw a space for rent. I decided to turn that space into somewhere I’d like to hangout—which is typically a bookstore lol. I always thought that owning a bookstore would be cool, never thought I ‘d actually be able to do it!
BM: Bookstores have a funny habit of being hybrids. There are lots of bookstore/coffee shops, for example. In your specific case, you are a bookstore and gallery space. What made you choose that combination? What is it about bookstores that lends themselves, beautifully, to this blurring?
DLM: I think that books being comprised of words make the ability to blur lines incredibly easy, as words are typically descriptors of everything—hence, why they work with and around anything.
BM: How did the idea for National Black Literacy Day come about? Was this something you were working on prior to the quarantine and the #BlackLivesMatter movement?
DLM: The idea for NBLD came about as our focus began to center more on literacy rates. The racial inequity that educational gaps create can begin to be solved by observing a community’s connection to reading, and we wanted a big way to combat that. We began working on it in January of 2021, after our holiday rush, and crossed our fingers hoping people would actually take us seriously lol.
BM: National holidays are important annual reminders of a cause, but how do you hope people will integrate the spirit of this holiday into their everyday lives? Obviously this will vary state by state, but are there any organizations in particular that you’d like to give a shoutout to?
DLM: I hope that people will stop taking literacy for granted. Our ability to be literate allows us to tell our own stories and express ourselves as we’d like, and the lack of such is life changing in an incredibly negative way. There is an awesome Chicago organization called the Chicago Literacy Alliance that is really doing the work!
BM: It’s no surprise that the majority of books taught in public schools are by white writers. Your #ClearTheShelves initiative seems to be, in part, a response to this egregious bias. What’s a book that you wish you had been assigned in school?
DLM: Absolutely! I wish that I’d been assigned any Octavia Butler novel. They’re so well-written and allow young Black women to see themselves outside of the “typical” box. Black sci-fi authors are incredible to me!
BM: The crux of your #ClearTheShelves program also seems to be choice. You really emphasize the power of letting kids choose the material that speaks to them. What book has been the most popular amongst the kids?
DLM: The King of Kindergarten is an absolute fave for the younger group. Something about the cover really excites them. Middle schoolers love any graphic novels. Parable of the Sower has a graphic novel that children and adults alike flock to!
BM: Evidently, the pandemic has not stopped Semicolon from getting involved in the community. How do you envision your efforts post-pandemic? What’re you working on next?
DLM: It would be hella difficult to stop Semicolon’s community efforts lol. We are committed to leaving a lasting impression, so we’re hoping to connect with our library system and create a Semicolon-esque library space in Chicago.
BM: What advice do you have for bookstores (or anyone) looking to start their own community-driven initiatives?
DLM: Just do the thing! There is no easy way to plan or set up community action, so you kinda just have to step out on faith and do what you can however you can.
BM: At the top of the GoFundMe page for your #ClearTheShelves program, you say “Reading is a revolutionary act.” What are some books that have felt particularly revolutionary to you?
DLM: As a Black lesbian, Audre Lorde has been the most revolutionary writing I’ve read. I also love The Terrible by Yrsa Daley Ward and All About Love by bell hooks. Both books have revolutionized how I view myself and how I approach my life!