The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

‘Grown-up book fair’ highlights authors of color and local businesses

Gia Clarke
A book fair patron laughs while browsing a selection of books on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, at First Sip Cafe in Chicago. Crowds of people lined up to see the books during the adult book fair co-hosted by First Sip and Call and Response Books.

As a child, Courtney Bledsoe always looked forward to her school book fair, promptly grabbing all the books she could fit in her backpack.

“That just was really an exciting time for me as a child, because I was such a voracious reader back then,” Bledsoe said. “Anything I could get my hands on, I would read.”

Years later, she now owns a bookstore and is helping organize “grown-up book fairs.”

Book-loving Chicagoans flocked to a small café Tuesday, Feb. 27, to relive the Scholastic Book Fair from their childhoods and support two local businesses. Call and Response Books, which Bledsoe owns, and First Sip Café partnered to host this particular grown-up book fair in Uptown, with a line of people that spilled out the door.

Once inside, the attendees crowded around tables laid out with a diverse selection of books. Steffi Haenicke, a former DePaul student who came to the book fair, said she loves reading and supporting local bookstores.

People crowd around to see the various books on display for purchase at First Sip Cafe on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. Call and Response Books is a Black woman-owned bookstore. (Gia Clarke)

 “I thought this seemed like the perfect event for both of those things,” Haenicke said. “What’s cool about this event is it’s highlighting two local businesses.”

Bledsoe’s journey to becoming a small business owner began on social media in 2021, when she started a “bookstagram” called the Busy Black Bookworm featuring and championing books written by people of color.

About three years ago, Bledsoe had the idea of opening a bookstore to continue that mission in a physical space. She started Call and Response Books, a Black-owned bookstore that will open this spring in Hyde Park. She broke ground for the space in February.

“I wanted … a community-oriented space that allows people to gather and have events, talk about things that are in books, meet with authors, have other events like singles mixers and trivia nights,” Bledsoe said. 

Although there will be various events, they are “still singularly devoted to the goal of amplifying writers and creatives of color,” she said.

Leading up to the storefront’s grand opening, Bledsoe is hosting various pop-up bookshops around the city, partnering with other businesses owned by people of color, which led her to First Sip Café.

First Sip Café opened in 2017 and is run by Erin Hoang and her sister Gigi. They grew up working in their parents’ restaurant and never planned on going back to the hospitality industry.

Hoang got a job at a startup in Chicago but started to feel burnt out and went back to graduate school. She later left graduate school and dove headfirst into First Sip Café.

People line up in front of the First Sip Cafe on Tuesday, Feb. 27 2024, for the adult book fair. The event is meant for people who feel nostalgic about the old Scholastic book fairs hosted in various schools. (Gia Clarke)

“I was like, ’Why is there not a coffee shop here when we have so many resources nearby, Argyle in particular?’” Hoang said. “That’s when me and my sister decided to jump the gun and we kind of just did it with no knowledge of what we were getting ourselves into.”

First Sip Café started hosting events to promote their business. Slowly, vendors and other small businesses asked if they could co-host events in the café. When Bledsoe reached out with the idea of a book fair, Hoang loved it.

Bledsoe said events like the book fair allow people to visit their communities, meet people and explore new ideas. Bledsoe wants people to become more aware of books written by authors of color.

“Regardless of whether they identify as a person of color, I think even if you don’t, it’s really important to expose yourself to books that are beyond your own personal circumstances or your own background,” Bledsoe said.

Lanise Beavers, an attendee of the book fair, has been following Bledsoe’s journey to building a storefront. Beavers said she believes it’s important to support Black-owned businesses.

“As we think about giving voice to marginalized populations, what does it mean to … show up to support?” Beavers asked. “I think it’s really pivotal and important to have these spaces that build up to something to really create community.” 

Courtney Bledsoe, the owner of Call and Response Books, checks out a customer at the grown-up book fair on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. Bledsoe has been hosting pop-up events around Chicago in the lead-up to opening her first storefront. (LiLi Jarvenpa)

Hoang says people of color face many barriers when opening their own businesses. According to the Federal Reserve, businesses run by people of color were twice as likely to be denied when applying for financing in 2022.

Hoang says ma

instream, corporate businesses tend to get more attention than small businesses.

 “Everyone wants to check in their spaces because they’re so well-done and they have so much capital and access to do so,” Hoang said. “Where I think people of color tend to have less access to capital and just less knowledge that there are resources out there.”

Even though the publishing industry is often predominantly white, Bledsoe says it is encouraging to see more bookstores owned by people of color that are thriving. She is planning other pop-up bookshops around Chicago before her brick-and-mortar location opens. More information about upcoming events can be found on the store’s website.

This spring, Bledsoe hopes to open her new storefront, which will be located at 1390 E. Hyde Park Blvd.

“I’m really interested in having just a neighborhood store that really does feel like a soft space to land for people, whether that means coming in after a really long and stressful day at work and just relaxing with friends,” Bledsoe said.

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