With renewed interest across the country in Black-owned bookstores and booksellers—like Chicago’s own Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery—now is an important time to remember that Bronzeville was an epicenter of Black bookselling in the 1940s.
Remembered mostly for its theaters, taverns, jazz clubs, and other venues of commerce, Bronzeville was a thriving Black Metropolis in the first half of the twentieth century that, in part, grew out of restrictive covenants and other racist policies that upheld white supremacist practices throughout the city. Bronzeville nevertheless thrived as a center of Black entrepreneurship, culture, the arts, and, it turns out, Black bookselling. That Black bookstores were so prominent in Chicago is significant, especially considering that book stores writ large were still relatively uncommon throughout the country.
Up until the later part of the twentieth century, most Americans did not buy books at a bookstore. Actual bookstores—shops devoted entirely to the selling of books—were somewhat rare, with most book sales coming from drug stores, department stores, or other general merchandise establishments.
To wit: Laura Miller’s study, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, tells us that in 1930, there were only 4,053 book outlets in the US, many of which were not bookstores, but drug stores, gift shops, and rental libraries (30). By the late 1940s, this number had increased to 3,041 book outlets plus another 5,000 drug stores, variety chain stores, and magazine outlets (30). In less than twenty years, then, the total number of businesses that sold books doubled, though remained low overall, primarily because the bookselling industry was slow to rationalize. “[M]ost booksellers were still small and independent,” Miller notes, and “with the exception of department stores, mass retailers played a relatively minor role in bookselling during the first half of the twentieth century” (30). This meant that “For a large portion of the country’s population, access to books for purchase remained extremely limited” (30).
Bookselling in Black communities mirrored this national trend. The Negro Yearbook, for instance, reported that there were only fifteen bookstores of “Negro proprietorship” in the entire nation in 1939 (184). Such a limited bookselling climate didn’t bode well for books by, about, and for African Americans who were considered a “niche market” without significant consumer power.
But that was changing. As Ebony reports in its first issue in November 1945, “A book boom is here.” “After a long century of frugal, fruitless writing, Negro authors are finally hitting pay dirt. . . . Along Book Row in New York’s mid-forties, publishers are frantically grabbing at any and all manuscripts which touch on the Negro” (“Book Boom” 24). Publishers started recruiting Black authors, in other words, to attract Black readers—a demographic that was steadily increasing during the twentieth century. In addition to readers and authors, the winners in (white) publishers’ race to gain the Black dollar, Ebony concludes, included “book stores around the nation” (24).
Chicago is one place where we can find evidence of this boom in Black bookselling. Indeed, small, independent bookstores had a vibrant and visible presence on the city’s South Side throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, contributing in large part to the emergence of the Black Chicago Renaissance.
Locating these bookselling establishments and their histories is now difficult—little material documenting their existence has been saved. However, one way to reconstruct this bibliophile past is to consult Black business guides. For instance, the 1947 edition of Scott’s Blue Book, a directory of Black businesses in “Greater Chicago,” documents that there were, surprisingly, eleven independent bookstores in the city’s Black Belt—book stores on Michigan, State, Cottage Grove, East 47th, and other central locations on the South Side.
The 1947 list includes one bookstore specializing in religious texts, as well as two used bookshops and four renting libraries, bringing the total number of Black establishments on the South Side devoted to bookselling to an impressive fifteen. Note that this tally does not factor in drug stores (of which there are 35 listed in 1947), gift shops (10), variety stores (11), and other novelty and department stores that very likely also sold books. In other words, fifteen is a low estimate. Even so, it means that there were more booksellers in Bronzeville than carpenters, roofers, plumbers, movers, locksmiths, optometrists, upholsterers, and painters. There were more bookstores than jewelry stores, hardware stores, dairy stores, and vegetable and fruit markets.
Moreover, fifteen is the very same number of “Negro bookstores” in the entire country less than a decade ago. Indeed, Scott’s Blue Book charts this growth: a report in the 1947 edition on the increase in Bronzeville bookstores tells us that there were eight in 1939 and 1940, seven in 1941, and eleven in 1944 (28). Compare this to only two bookstores in 1922, according to the 1923 edition of the Simms’ Blue Book and National Negro Business and Professional Directory (65).
These numbers indicate that Bronzeville was a bookselling hub throughout the 1940s, and in turn, that book stores were at the center of Bronzeville’s commercial life during the Black Chicago Renaissance—indeed, quite literally. They lined the corridors of 47th Street and the Stroll, rubbing shoulders with the Regal Theater, the Savoy Ballroom, and the South Side Community Arts Center. For a neighborhood only 1.5 miles wide and 7 miles long at the time, this is an impressive number of book-selling establishments, which speaks to the centrality of books and reading in Black Chicago at midcentury.
This network of bookstores not only served Black readers in the city, but it also supported Black writing, promoting and even funding the Black Chicago Renaissance with Black dollars. Literary magazines like Negro Story and writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker directly benefitted from Bronzeville’s bookselling culture, gaining promotion and even financial support from some of the neighborhood’s most successful establishments.
Take, for instance, the Studio bookstore. Located at 4657 South Michigan Avenue and managed (perhaps also owned) by Doris Evans Smith and Eloise M. Boone in 1947, the Studio advertised itself in Scott’s Blue Book as selling “books – art objects – stationery – greeting cards” (124). But it was also a local spot that promoted and hosted Black writers, creating a community of reading and writing in the heart of Bronzeville.
A notice in 1945 in the Black newspaper, Chicago Sunday Bee, reports that upon the publication of Gwendolyn Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville, “Marshall Field’s book store, the S and S book store and the Studio book shop had depleted their stock and were turning away disappointed customers who wished to own this unique volume of verse” (“Honored” 15). Like the Studio, the S. & S. bookstore (located at 107 E. 47th Street) held a prominent place in Bronzeville and supported Black writing, including Brooks’s first volume. That both the Studio and the S. & S. book shops sold out their supply of Brooks’s first book of poems speaks to their role in promoting the work of Black authors. Moreover, the fact that they are mentioned in the company of department store giant, Marshall Field, illustrates their prominence as centers of Black entrepreneurship and consumerism.
In addition to supporting individual writers, Black book stores financially backed other projects in Bronzeville’s literary scene. Featured in the 1947 edition of Scott’s Blue Book as a store “Featuring a Complete Line of Books By and About Negroes plus All Current Best Sellers,” the S. & S. also offered “Magazines” as well as “Engraved Invitations and Announcements,” and served as a recording studio (124). Its proprietor, Lewis Simpkins, also supported Negro Story, a major, though short-lived literary magazine of the Black Chicago Renaissance.
Created by Alice Browning and Fern Gayden, and running from 1944-1946, this Bronzeville “little magazine” featured important Black writers of the era, including Brooks, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Chester Himes, and Margaret Walker. As an “agent” of Browning and Gayden’s literary venture, proudly featured on the magazine’s title page (see, for instance, volume 1, issue 3 [Oct.-Nov. 1944]), the S. & S. bookstore offered its business—and its status—in Bronzeville to support the small magazine. Notably, the Chicago Bee also made financial contributions to Negro Story as a “friend.”
The kind of relationship that S. & S. shared with Negro Story and the Bee demonstrates a close connection between Black book businesses and the Black press that was common during the Black Chicago Renaissance. Indeed, many Black periodicals in Chicago even had their own book departments—or actual bookstores—that gave Bronzeville residents even greater access to a wide variety of books; many of these publications even offered mail order.
For example, the Chicago Bee, located at 3655 S. State Street, accepted orders for a variety of “Books about Negroes” from its readers and printed ads soliciting orders from subscribers in each weekly issue. Similarly, the Negro Digest book store, located at 5125 S. Calumet Ave., promised “[a] careful selection of the latest best-sellers as well as the best books of the past” that were sure to provide you with a “reading you’ll remember” (“Best Buys in Books” ).
Published by Chicago publishing giant John H. Johnson, who also created Ebony and, later, Jet, Negro Digest held a prominent place in Bronzeville; most likely its book store did, too. If we include the Negro Digest and Sunday Bee bookselling establishments on our list of Bronzeville bookstores, the number goes up to at least seventeen, which is most likely a conservative estimate.
There are complex reasons––involving more racist municipal policy––as Christopher Robert Reed, Natalie Moore, and others have noted, for Bronzeville’s decline as an epicenter of Black business. Yet the fact remains that, as Moore writes, “Black businesses are no longer clustered in an area like the Black Belt, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The basic pattern was that black businesses moved into the neighborhoods that black people moved into” (“Black Businesses’”).
Though few if any records of these Black book businesses survive today, the archival evidence that does exist clearly documents how local Black bookstores helped build a reading infrastructure in Bronzeville that bolstered individual authors, backed the Black Chicago Renaissance, and served a growing base of Black consumers. In this way, their impact on Black literature—and Chicago culture more broadly—serves as a testament to a forgotten history of independently owned Black bookstores on Chicago’s South Side that, in conjunction with Black magazines and newspapers, wove together an extensive culture of reading and helped build the Black Chicago Renaissance book by book.
“Best Buys in Books.” Ad for Negro Digest Book Shop. Ebony, Mar. 1947, p. .
“Book Boom for Negro Authors: Once-Hungry Writers Finally Hit Pay Dirt in Publishing Houses.” Ebony, 1 Nov. 1945, pp. 24-25.
“Honored.” Sunday Chicago Bee, 23 [illegible] 1945, p. 15.
Miller, Laura. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. U of Chicago P, 2006.
Moore, Natalie. “Black Business’ Slow Flight from Bronzeville.” WBEZ Chicago, 30 July 2015, https://www.wbez.org/stories/black-business-slow-flight-from-bronzeville/d0da024c-bbe8-422f-b710-8c9215e1657d.
The Negro Year Book. Ed. Jessie Parkhurst Guzman. Published by Dept. of Records and Research, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, 1947.
Scott’s Blue Book: A Classified Business and Service Directory of Greater Chicago’s Colored Citizens’ Commercial, Industrial, Professional, Religious and Other Activities. Chicago: Scott’s Business and Directory Service, 1947.
Simms’ Blue Book and National Negro Business and Professional Directory. Compiled and published by James N. Simms, Chicago, 1923.