How One Black-Owned Bookstore in Chicago Is Staying Open

Danielle Mullen launched Semicolon, the sole Black female-owned bookstore in Chicago, in 2019, after she was treated for ocular cancer.  She named the store after a nonprofit that encourages people to keep going during difficult times. When she learned this March that she’d have to close because of the Covid-19 pandemic, she maneuvered quickly to sustain her business, which combines her love of literature and focus on community.

Days before the shutdown took effect, Mullen gave away many of the books on Semicolon’s shelves to local public school students. She then set up a GoFundMe crowdsourcing campaign to raise money for subsequent giveaways to students of more than 3,500 books, an effort she’s continuing.

“Families at the lower end of the financial spectrum don’t have many books at home, and the least we can do for students who haven’t been in school is provide some,” she says.

Mullen struggled to keep her bookstore going with online sales and considered taking a loan.  Her fortunes changed in late May when the Black Lives Matter protests occurred, and Semicolon was deluged with orders from customers seeking books by and about Blacks and other minorities.

“We went from moving hundreds to tens of thousands of books a week,” she says.   “It was overwhelming at first, and at one point we had to unplug our phone because we couldn’t talk to customers and  fulfill orders at the same time.”

How One Black-Owned Bookstore in Chicago Is Staying Open

Black-owned bookstores have long served as keepers of Black culture and community hubs where authors and activists exchange ideas. That’s kept them alive, despite online behemoth Amazon’s dominance in the bookselling market. There are about 120 Black-owned bookstores in the U.S. today, according to the African American Literature Book Club, compared with 54 in 2014 and about 200 in the mid-1990s. They comprise about eight percent of the 2,524 independent bookstores overall. Many, like Philadelphia-based Hakim’s Bookstore, open since 1959, and The Lit. Bar, which launched in the Bronx, N.Y. last year, have at times relied on donations to either stay in business or to start up.

Now they face the challenge of meeting and sustaining sudden increased demand from a diverse group of customers—which is likely to continue as protests over racial injustice and police brutality against Blacks persist. They must quickly build inventory, find ways to fill orders more quickly and efficiently and broaden social media campaigns, for instance. 

Semicolon’s Mullen increased her staff of four to six employees and now may hire two more people. She added detailed ordering instructions to the store’s voice mail and email systems and she and her store manager take turns managing the store’s social media accounts, she says.

In May, she was able to reopen her store and  serve customers in person as well as online.  She did some remodeling to ensure social distancing. Reading chairs have been removed and instead of one cashier area, staff moves around the store with scanners so customers can make purchases in aisles where they’re browsing.

How One Black-Owned Bookstore in Chicago Is Staying Open

Mullen estimates that about half her sales in recent weeks have been derived from about ten race-related books now on bestseller lists, including “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram Kendi. To steer customers to lesser-known works, she places books on shelves so covers are facing forward and doesn’t have one designated section for fiction and another for biography or politics.  This encourages customers to roam around the store—instead of heading to just one section—and to pick up books by authors and on subjects they aren’t familiar with.

“I don’t like to think that we’re benefitting from the pandemic or from the police murders of George Floyd and other unarmed Blacks,” says Mullen, “but I’m glad there’s a new awareness about racism and a new interest in our stories.”

How to Maneuver from Slow to Surging Demand

  • Stick to your values and operating principles during slow times and call on loyal customers and other allies for help.
  • If demand for your product or service suddenly increases, do what it takes to meet it, including hiring new staff and building inventory quickly.
  • Devise new marketing and social media campaigns to build on a growing customer base.
  • Pay off debt and build a cash reserve with some profits in case demand slips again. 

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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