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Photo: DS Shin
The Chicago bookstore called Semicolon is also an art gallery and community space.

The future of independent bookstores will probably be determined by owners who combine selling books with other services — coffee bars, author events, children’s story hours, community meetings, or art galleries. In Chicago, Semicolon is one example of how to do it.

Taylor Moore writes at Chicago magazine, “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.’ …

” ‘[Semicolon] 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. …

“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.’ ” More here.

Still more at “Because of Them We Can,” here, Melville House, here, Chicago Review of Books, here, and the Literary Hub, here.

Photo: The North Star
DL Mullen is the founder of the combined bookstore, art gallery, and community space in Chicago’s West Town.

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Photo: Chicago Public Library
Chicago Public Library STEAM Team First Assistant Librarian Alejandra Santana (left) reads to storytime attendees at Bubbleland laundromat.

Suzanne and Erik’s son went through a period of being utterly enraptured and entranced by washing machines. When his uncle came to visit from Denmark, he made him sit on the floor of the bathroom with him and marvel at the wash cycle. When his sister was born, he pushed her baby bed in front of the washing machine to show her the greatest wonder of life. When my husband babysat him, he insisted on visiting the local laundromat just to watch the machines work. All the staff knew him.

So when I saw this story about the Chicago library system setting up story hours for young children in laundromats, I thought of my grandson. He would have considered library outreach an intrusion on his contemplation (he once sent my husband out of the laundry room because he was in the way), but I think that for other kids, libraries in laundromats would be fantastic.

Anne Ford writes at American Libraries, “Laundry: It’s got to be done. And if you’re in a family with small children and no washer or dryer at home, it’s got to be done at the neighborhood laundromat — probably every week, probably on the same day every week, and probably with those children in tow.

“That’s why, in 1989, Chicago Public Library (CPL) Children’s Librarian Elizabeth McChesney (now CPL’s director of children’s services and family engagement) visited a local laundromat to introduce herself to families. How she responded to what she saw there would help change the landscape of children’s literacy initiatives for decades to come.

“ ‘What I saw was that these were families who, because of a variety of circumstances, were not likely to come to the library for storytime,’ she says. So she went back to the library, threw some books, a couple of puppets, and a tambourine into a laundry basket, walked it back to the laundromat, and held a storytime for the kids there — right on the spot, as the washers whirred.

“McChesney’s not claiming she started the laundry-and-literacy movement. ‘People have done this off and on for the last 25, 30 years,’ she says. Still, thanks to her, CPL continues to hold regular storytimes at laundromats across Chicago. And, she says, the librarians who participate continue to see rewards.

“ ‘Families are now changing their behavior, showing up to do their laundry when the library is going to be there,’ she reports.

‘One little boy just recently said: “Let’s do laundry every day, Mom!” ‘ …

“Can’t these children simply go to a branch library instead? Not necessarily. As a recent paper on book deserts by Susan B. Neuman and Naomi Moland in the journal Urban Education (vol. 54, no. 1, p. 126–147) points out, in some areas, decreased funding for libraries has led to ‘limited hours and curtailed services’ — and in many low-income communities, demand has exceeded capacity or parents are often hesitant to check out books because of potential library fines. …

“Not all laundromat library programs are alike, though most operate with some type of librarian participation, direction, or materials curation.

“Wash Time Is Talk Time, an effort sponsored by [the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail (TSTF) early-childhood initiative and the Coin Laundry Association’s LaundryCares Foundation (LCF)], distributes posters in English and Spanish that encourage parents to talk, read, and sing with their children while they do laundry; it also provides books to some laundromats to lend out. …

“How effective are these programs, and what kind of impact are they having on children’s literacy? To find out, [the Laundry and Literacy Coalition (LLC)] is working with Neuman. … The first part of that evaluation, conducted last year, found that children in laundromats with literacy resources engaged in 30 times more literacy activities — such as talking with their families, singing songs, drawing, and reading books — than children in laundromats without those resources. The second phase, announced in March, found that librarians in these programs increased child engagement in literacy-related activities.” More here.

Bubbleland on Western, a Chicago laundromat

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Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune, via Associated Press
Candice Payne, “a regular person,” rented hotel rooms for more than 100 homeless people in Chicago — and strangers followed her lead — as temperatures headed way below freezing.

A Chicago real estate broker, a self-styled “little black girl from the South Side,” had a moment when she just couldn’t bear to see a particular bad thing happen.

The temperature in Chicago was about to go way below zero last week, and Candice Payne started thinking about the people in the city’s homeless camp. Here’s what can result when “a regular person” realizes that empathizing while doing nothing is not an option.

Sandra E. Garcia has the story at the New York Times.

“As temperatures plunged to life-threatening lows this week, more than 100 homeless people in Chicago unexpectedly found themselves with food, fresh clothes and a place to stay after a local real estate broker intervened.

“The broker, Candice Payne, 34, said it was a ‘spur-of-the-moment’ decision to help. ‘It was 50 below, and I knew they were going to be sleeping on ice and I had to do something,’ she said on Saturday.

“Ms. Payne contacted hotels and found 30 rooms available at the Amber Inn for Wednesday night at $70 per room. …

“After Ms. Payne paid for the rooms on a credit card, she asked on her Instagram account for anyone who could help transport the homeless people. Soon she had a caravan of cars, S.U.V.s and vans with volunteer drivers.

“ ‘We met at tent city, where all the homeless people set up tents and live on the side of the expressway,’ Ms. Payne said. … She asked as many people as she could to go with her to the Amber Inn as donations were pouring in to her Cash App account. …

“ ‘We had to accommodate everyone. It was really overwhelming,’ Ms. Payne said. ‘They were so appreciative. They couldn’t wait to get in a bath and lay in a bed.’

“Ms. Payne bought toiletries, food, prenatal vitamins, lotions, deodorants and snacks and made care packages to help make the people feel comfortable. Restaurants donated trays of food, and many people called the inn. …

“ ‘People from the community, they all piggyback off Candice,’ said Robyn Smith, the manager of the Amber Inn. ‘Other people started calling and anonymously paying for rooms,’ she added, and Ms. Smith lowered the price to accommodate more people. What started out as 30 rooms doubled to 60, Ms. Smith said. …

‘I am a regular person,’ Ms. Payne said. ‘It all sounded like a rich person did this, but I’m just a little black girl from the South Side. I thought it was unattainable, but after seeing this and seeing people from all around the world, that just tells me that it’s not that unattainable. We can all do this together. …

“ ‘This was a temporary fix, and it has inspired me to come up with more of a permanent solution.’ ”

Talk about the Power of One! Here’s hoping that the state’s wealthy governor, who called Payne to offer his praise, gets on board with a permanent solution.

More at the New York Times, here.

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Knitting seems to be coming back in style. I thought I had forgotten everything I learned from knitting sweaters during college lectures, but the basic stitch came back to me when I started tackling scarves as an alternative to doodling in work meetings.

Now I see that knitting is serving many positive social purposes among kids in a poor Chicago neighborhood

Lisa Suhay writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Students are getting knitty in a gritty urban neighborhood on Chicago‘s west side, as they are learning to craft skeins of yarn into a blanket of calm that is making them more social – and fiscally sound.

“ ‘Three years ago, I started teaching kids here to knit and then I thought, “Let’s see if we could sell what they make at my church and give the kids some pocket money in the process,’ says Dorothea Tobin, a teacher at North Lawndale College Prep, in a phone interview from her classroom where she is surrounded by clicking needles and chatting teens.

“In the ‘BT Lives in the Stitch’ club, according to Ms. Tobin, students price their wares between $10 and $30 per item and reap the rewards of being able to socialize while earning enough profit to pay for prom tickets or sundries they might not otherwise be able to afford. …

“Of the 40 students in Tobin’s club a handful are boys. Asked if there was a difference between what boys and girls prefer to knit she says, ‘Boys prefer to knit scarves because those are good sellers. Girls tend more towards baby hats.’ … She has observed that the simple act of mastering a traditional skill and producing something has a profound effect on her students. …

“ ‘They’re always making fun of my rules, but I have club rules for a reason,’ she says. ‘I don’t want them to isolate themselves in the process.’

“The first rule of Knitting Club, Tobin says, is no headphones. … The second rule is to dance with her on Fridays. The third rule, she says is ‘Greet each other when new members come to join us in a session.’ ”

More here.

Photo: Casey Bayer

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Since I like to walk everyday, even going round and round indoors for much of this past winter, I was fascinated to hear about walking as a competitive sport in the 19th century.

At his WBUR radio show yesterday, Only a Game, Bill Littlefield talked to Matthew Algeo, author of Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Sport.

Here’s Algeo: “Edward Payson Weston was a door-to-door books salesman from Providence, R.I. In the autumn of 1860, he made a bet with a friend on the outcome of that year’s presidential election. Weston bet that Lincoln would lose, and, of course, Weston lost the bet. The loser had to walk from Boston to Washington in 10 days and arrive in time to witness the inauguration of Lincoln on March 4, 1861.

“So Weston set out and made his way south. Of course, this was a very tense time in American history. Southern states began seceding. There wasn’t a lot of good, uplifting news. And the idea that this guy would walk from Boston to Washington in the middle of winter on terrible roads — it really did capture the imagination of the public, especially along the East Coast. Huge crowds would turn out to see him just walk through their town. Weston didn’t make it in time. He was four hours late to the inauguration. He did meet Lincoln a couple of days later and Lincoln offered to pay his rail fare home, but Weston said he would try to walk home. But the Civil War intervened.”

Littlefield then refers to Weston as one half of “the first great rivalry in the annals of American sports” and asks Algeo who the other half was.

“Daniel O’Leary, an Irish immigrant from Chicago,” says the author. “And what happened was Weston, to capitalize on his fame, decided to take his act indoors. He began walking inside roller rinks, and he would try to walk say 100 miles in 24 hours and charge people a dime for the pleasure of watching him walk in circles all day. This proved immensely popular — thousands of people would do it. Naturally competitors rose up and Daniel O’Leary actually walked 100 miles in 22 hours. And so he bested Weston’s record and so that set up the big showdown in 1875 that you mentioned. It was a 500-mile race over six days between Weston and O’Leary. …

“They would draw a dirt track on the floor of an arena. … The competitors would be sent off, and they would walk continuously day and night for six days right up until midnight the following Saturday night. And the rules were pretty simple: whoever walked the farthest was the winner.” Read more here, where you also can listen to the interview and read Littlefield’s book review.

 

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Deanna Isaacs has a funny post at the Chicago Reader. It’s about the Storefront Playwright Project.

“Tired of sitting around watching paint dry?” she asks.

“Then get yourself over to 72 E. Randolph, where, thanks to the League of Chicago Theatres and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, you can watch a real, live writer at work.

“The Storefront Playwright Project is putting 27 authors on exhibit this month in the big front window at Hot Tix/Expo 72.

“Never mind that writing is right up there with sleeping as a potential spectator sport, so stimulating that the writer him- or herself often has to bring the action to a complete stop in order to check e-mail, clean a closet, or book a flight and get the hell out of there. …

“Guessing that dramatists would be more dynamic at work than, say, novelists (readily observed in deep rumination at most any coffee shop), I stopped by last week, when Emilio Williams was on display.

“The playwrights each take a four-hour shift. Williams was a couple hours into his afternoon stint, gamely focused on his laptop, which was perched on a small white table and hooked into a large screen mounted in the window. The big screen faces outward, allowing passersby a look at the creative product the instant it emerges from the writer’s brain. …

“Behind the glass, Williams pursed his lips and crossed his ankles. …

“He leaned his chin on his hand and scrolled through several pages of dialogue that went something like this:

“Mar: Done?

“Ted: Yep.

“Mar: You don’t sound very enthusiastic.

“Williams paused.

“He blinked.

“He scrolled again.

“And then, it happened!

“On the big screen, before my very eyes, the cursor hesitated. It stopped. And it backed up, deleting as it went, wiping out ‘tucitcennoC’ and replacing it with ‘Lake Geneva.’ ” More from Deanna, even funnier.

Readers may recall several posts I wrote on a playwriting class I took the summer before last. (For example, here.) I thought the class got playwriting out of my system. Should I reconsider now that playwrights have the opportunity to sit in storefronts where strangers can watch them think?

Um, maybe not.

Photograph: The Chicago Reader

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Mark Guarino has a nice story in the Christian Science Monitor about a Chicago woman of great determination.

” ‘Pollinate’ is a word that Brenda Palms Barber likes to throw around when talking to people about her work.

She pollinates jobs for recently released inmates looking for a second chance. She pollinates faith among the people who take a chance in hiring them. She pollinates an upswing in North Lawndale, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago, about five miles west of downtown.

“She also pollinates honey. At least that’s the job of the bees she has spent five years raising.

Indeed, Ms. Barber has brought swarms of bees to the city’s West Side, using them to foster job creation among a stigmatized group of people who live on the bottom rung of the economic ladder: black males who exit the state or county prison system with little formal education or job skills….

” ‘We have to be their first employers,’ she says. ‘We have to prove to society that people who did bad things, people who need second chances, can be positive in the workplace, that they will be loyal and hard-working and honest employees.’ “

More here.

Photo: David Harold Ropinksi/Sweet Beginnings
Brenda Palms Barber’s honey-products program has hired 275 ex-offenders since 2007. After 90 days, they shift to the outside workforce.

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