At This New Bookstore, Poets and Painters Share the Walls
DL Mullen yearned for a way to unite her editorial background and curatorial chops. Now, she’s living her vision with a hybrid bookstore–gallery in West Town.
Published July 11, 2019, at 4:30 p.m.
Text by Taylor Moore
At Semicolon, creatives of all stripes can find common ground. Located near the Grand Blue Line stop in West Town, the city’s newest bookstore is also a community space and gallery for Chicago’s street art scene.
But Semicolon is notable for more than just its unique concept. When it officially opened on Tuesday at 515 North Halsted Street with a party and mural unveiling, it became one of just a handful of woman-owned bookstores in Chicago and its only bookstore owned by a black woman.
An author and editor with a PhD in literary theory, proprietor DL Mullen first explored the world of art curation through her writing business, which landed her gigs penning exhibition copy for museums like LACMA.
“Explaining art is really [key] to how people understand it and connect to it,” she says. “It became important to me to bridge art and words.”
Mullen’s original plan in the spring was to open Athenaeum Librarium, a business concept that was a mix between a library, an artsy co-working space, and membership-only club — a sort of literary Soho House — but the 25,000-square-foot project was repeatedly plagued by construction woes. Rather than scrap two years’ worth of work, she spun the concept into a bookstore, rechristening it Semicolon.
“It represents the point in a sentence where it could stop, but the author decides to proceed,” Mullen explains.
As a curator, Mullen brings an aesthetic sensibility to the bookstore’s interior. Semicolon is filled with lots of small personal touches, from author quotes on the walls to colorful furniture bought and carried from the Salvation Army two blocks away.
But what might be most visually striking about the space is the art itself, like the mural which dominates the shop’s north wall. Street artist Ahmad Lee painted it in one 11-hour stretch, vividly depicting two of Mullen’s favorite artists: Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Lee’s other pop-art paintings — including one of Pocahontas holding the decapitated head of John Smith — will be on display in “the living room,” Semicolon’s rotating gallery space downstairs. Mullen plans on featuring different Chicago street artists monthly, in addition to hosting author and artist talks every few weeks.
As for the books, they’re unconventionally arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves with their covers facing out, not unlike a gallery. Keeping with Semicolon’s curatorial spirit, Mullen hand-picked all 400 titles, grouping them by association rather than genre. In her “Books That Make You Think” category, for example, you can pick up Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a collection of James Baldwin essays, and biographies of Henri Matisse and Georges Seurat.
Mullen also wanted the store to be an asset to aspiring and self-published authors. For those looking to print manuscripts on the fly, Semicolon houses an Espresso Book Machine, a printer that can print up to 450 pages in minutes.
Throughout Semicolon’s creation, Mullen has never lost sight of the fact that the store is currently the city’s sole black woman–owned bookstore.
“It means everything to me. To be able to create something that I love, as a black woman, that other black women and people can love just as much is a huge deal,” she says. "You don’t get into bookselling looking for money; it’s really hard to build up your career to actually open a bookstore. I feel grateful that I’ve been able to do that.”