Courtney Bledsoe inside Call & Response Books. Credit: Jasmine Barnes

There are some 150 Black-owned bookstores in the United States. That’s only about six percent of the 2,500 independent bookstores in the country. 

While book bans and legislative attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts and critical race theory sweep the nation, Hyde Park’s newest bookstore, Call & Response Books, offers a much-needed space where stories by and about people of color are centered and celebrated. 

Courtney Bledsoe, a Chicagoan and book enthusiast, hopes to bring more of these stories to the South Side with a grand opening on May 4. 

“I want this to be a space that reflects literature that is impactful for me and would support young people and older people who also are seeking to see themselves in books,” said Bledsoe. “There’s also the bigger context for us to have more spaces and to fight for Black literature.” 

Bledsoe said “call and response,” an African diasporic tradition in which listeners respond in real time to oral storytelling, was a common practice in her church upbringing. “I think most Black people, when they see ‘call and response,’ know exactly what that means,” said Bledsoe. “I wanted the name of the store to sort of convey an active listening or active participation—a back-and-forth conversational element.” 

She plans for the bookstore to elevate diverse and nuanced Black stories, while inviting all readers to be in conversation with narratives that might broaden their empathy and understanding. 

Bledsoe is inspired by her own reading experiences. She distinctly remembers reading the young adult novel Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier as a young person. It was one of the first times she read a book with a protagonist who was a person of color, and she resonated deeply with it. 

The book, centering the story of a South Asian teen and her family, allowed Bledsoe to see an experience of a character that didn’t fit into the racial and cultural norms of her high school. Even though the family didn’t share Bledsoe’s exact racial identity, the cross-cultural similarities were still validating and resonant for her. 

While conceptualizing Call & Response, Bledsoe knew she wanted the bookstore and its inventory to offer readers the transformative experience of seeing themselves represented in stories and literature. She shared this sentiment on the Call & Response website, writing, “We hope to provide a space for the many people who, for so long, have not seen ourselves represented in literature, empowering all to share their stories with the world.”

These foundational memories and this ongoing passion for books led Bledsoe to an awakening in early 2023, when she began seriously contemplating stepping away from her career as a lawyer to invest her time and resources in opening a bookstore. 

“My dream in life was to open a bookstore,” Bledsoe said. While she always imagined realizing this dream later in life, her passion for amplifying stories for and by people of color compelled her to take the leap sooner. As a self-identified “risk-averse person,” it was her love of books that fueled her to step into the unknown.

Inside Call & Response Books. Credit: Jasmine Barnes

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The first year developing and managing the business was a steep learning curve. To receive professional support and network with other local business owners, Bledsoe attended Chamber of Commerce meetings and started engaging with the Illinois Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the Polsky Exchange.

“A lot of the early stage was really just research and getting to talk to other booksellers,” said Bledsoe. While the American Booksellers Association, a trade organization that promotes independent bookstores, was a major resource in the early stages of the business, she was also intentional about connecting with other small bookstores in Chicago, including Exile in Bookville in the Loop and Women and Children First in Andersonville. 

“I was [also] talking to bookstore owners who were people of color who have that specific experience of running bookstores that focus on books by people of color,” said Bledsoe. Her relationship with the other Black and woman-owned bookstores nationwide have proved to be particularly insightful. Bledsoe has looked to the other Black woman-owned bookstores in the Chicago, Semicolon Books in West Town and Da Book Joint in Washington Park, for mentorship and guidance. 

“Dani from Semicolon [Books] has just been an amazing cheerleader,” said Bledsoe. When reflecting on what she’s learned from other Black woman booksellers, Bledsoe lands on an often overused but accurate word: resilience. “Things can be falling apart and they’re just like, ‘You know what? We don’t have time for this. We’re just going to keep going. It’ll be okay. We’ll figure it out when we get there.’” 

“There’s also the bigger context for us to have more spaces and to fight for Black literature.”—Courtney Bledsoe

Courtney Bledsoe outside Call & Response Books. Credit: Jasmine Barnes

That mentality has helped Bledsoe move through the stress and challenges of fulfilling online book orders, managing and growing a social media presence, participating in local book pop-ups across the city, and finding a brick-and-mortar location. 

“Generally there are a lot of obstacles, regardless of whether you are Black in this country, to owning a small business,” said Bledsoe. “It’s becoming increasingly true due to things like Amazon and other kinds of e-commerce platforms.” 

While choosing to invest in a physical bookstore presents its own precarity and challenges, especially for a minority, first-time business owner, there are also larger social and political challenges that Call & Response faces simply by existing.

In 2023, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) documented the highest level of censorships in its history, with 4,240 unique book titles targeted for censorship and 1,247 demands to censor library books, materials, and resources. Forty-seven percent of censorship attempts were titles about LGBTQ and BIPOC people. 

Young people nationwide are most notably impacted. PEN America reported a record-breaking 3,362 instances of books banned during the 2022-23 school year—a thirty-three percent increase from the previous school year. 

This “Ed Scare” also impacts public libraries, higher education institutions, and public schools. The national attack on critical race theory in academic institutions and DEI efforts makes promoting the stories of characters with marginalized identities an innately political effort. 

“We have Governor Pritzker who signed into law the ban against book bans, which is really great for people who are in Illinois,” said Bledsoe. “[But] you still have a problem where a lot of the stories that are front and center are just not stories that are reflecting the diversity of lived experiences in this country.”

Amidst ongoing book bans in the fall of 2023, Bledsoe launched a GoFundMe to fundraise for a physical storefront. By early 2024, she had raised more than $5,000, exceeding her goal and allowing Bledsoe to secure a place in Hyde Park. 

Hyde Park has a rich literary landscape, with 57th Street Books, Powell’s Books Chicago, and Seminary Co-op Bookstores all within a few blocks of each other, as well as the Blackstone library branch. Bledsoe imagines Call & Response contributing to this already thriving ecosystem. 

“We’re all striving towards similar goals of celebrating stories and storytelling,” said Bledsoe. “I think Call & Response is just another [space] that is saying there are specific stories we’d like to focus on within the larger world of storytelling.”

Bledsoe plans to intentionally curate the store’s inventory to prioritize the interests of community members. To her, this means offering a book selection that speaks to many facets of the Black experience and mirrors the lives of residents in historically Black neighborhoods. “I think it’s really important for people of color and Black people in particular to see we’re not just living through racialized trauma all the time,” said Bledsoe. She also plans to have an online book request form for community members to share what they want to see on the shelves. 

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Inside Call & Response Books. Credit: Jasmine Barnes

As Bledsoe looks forward to the bookstore’s grand opening on May 4, there’s already been local interest in using the space for events, gatherings, and workshops. A signing event for Arionne Nettles’s new book We Are The Culture will be held on May 13. Even before she announced the opening date, Bledsoe received inquiries about hosting events at the store.  

“The biggest thing I wanted to be is really an event-oriented bookstore space,” said Bledsoe. “I want [Call & Response] to be a place where everyone has their hands on and feel like it’s a place that they can contribute to.”

When describing her vision for the bookstore in the coming year, Bledsoe mentioned children’s programming, including reading days, storytimes, and arts and crafts workshops. She also plans to host events that extend beyond the strict confines of books, including open mic nights and singles mixers. While Bledsoe plans to start small with the Call & Response staff, splitting labor between herself and one other in-store book seller, she believes the collective efforts of the community will allow the space to thrive and expand its impact. 

Through community engagement, Bledsoe hopes to expose people to stories and experiences that mirror their own and encourage curiosity and compassion. 

When asked about some of the books she’s been reading, James Baldwin’s Another Country and Just Above My Head came to mind. “They really speak to a lot of the contours of race and class and gender in the United States and…feel timeless,” said Bledsoe. “The commentary that a lot of these characters [make] feel like they could have been made by someone who is living in 2023 or 2024.”

As history repeats itself, and obstacles to minority businesses and independent bookstores show no signs of abating anytime soon, Call & Response Books calls out with radical hope and awaits the community’s impassioned response.

Visit Call & Response Books at 1390 E Hyde Park Blvd, Chicago, IL 60615 for its grand opening on May 4, 11am – 7pm and a book singing for Anionne Nettles’ new book We Are The Culture on May 13 at 3pm. 

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Jasmine Barnes is a Chicago-based facilitator and multidisciplinary writer calling on the Black womanist tradition in her work. You can learn more about her by visiting her website:

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