Courtney Woods had trouble relating to the characters in the books she read in school.
As a teenager on the South Shore, she said she was drawn to George and Lennie in “Of Mice and Men” and the books on her mother’s shelves — works by Richard Wright, Claude Thomas, Maya Angelou.
“When I started reading characters who were like me — they had the same upbringing as me, lived in the same situation and everything — it made reading more fun,” Woods said.
Woods, 30, and her mother, Verlian Singletary, run a bookstore out of a shipping container in Bronzeville, offering stories they hope will speak to the local community. Their store, The Book Joint, specializes in black literature from around the world.
Housed in brightly painted shipping containers, they are part of a collection of six businesses located in Bronzeville – a 2017 initiative called Boxville. Located at the corner of 51st Street and Calumet Avenue, Boxville is part of the Urban Juncture Foundation’s Build Bronzeville Initiative, which works to revitalize the historic Bronzeville community.
The South Side has always been a book desert, Woods says. She described the hallway outside her bookstore as below the human traffickers, littered with trash.
“I want everyone to realize that it’s more than what you see when you look down 51st Street,” she said.
In the year A business that started in 2017 selling bicycles out of containers is now entering its sixth winter with 17 shipping containers operating year-round. The summer months are when Boxville comes to life, with pop-up markets on Wednesdays and fitness classes and programs in the nearby garden.
Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, called Boxville an “entrepreneurial approach” to young business owners. Micro-boxes are only $400 a month, while many brick-and-mortar offices cost thousands of dollars to build. The Illinois Small Business Development Center, hosted by the Urban Juncture Foundation, has an office and public “hangout” space on the 51st Street corridor, just meters from the businesses.
Lauren Amos, director of small business development for Urban Juncture, says business owners are popping their heads into her office all the time to ask for advice. Born and raised in Chicago with a degree in finance, she says spreadsheets are her love language. Her job is to provide local businesses with one-on-one advice, connecting them with helpful organizations and providing resources.
The world of entrepreneurship can be lonely, Amos said. But Boxville is a vibrant and interactive community. Businesses set their own hours, although all are open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.
“People can come and find you. They can affect your products. Know your products. You can connect with people,” she says.
She loves reading since she was 3 years old. An 11-year-old remembers Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” being deeply moved by Celie’s story of perseverance. An accountant by day passed her love of words on to her son.
Woods said she and her mother learned about Boxville through Desiree Sanders, mother of rapper and poet Noname and owner of the now-shuttered Afrocentric Books, one of the first black-owned bookstores in Chicago. In December 2021, they moved into their 20-foot box.
The store has about 350 books on small shelves mounted on the wall. There are bookmarks and notebooks for sale under LED lighting and plastic green vines dripping down from the ceiling. It’s modern, and almost has a bit of a speakeasy feel to it.
She said her single space is so small that she can’t find all the books she needs. She pours over publishers’ magazines to guess the selection, from children’s books to crime fiction. Walter Mosley and Kwan Foye are authors she’s been reading a lot lately, she said.
“Owning a bookstore has always been a dream of mine,” Singletary told the Tribune.
Da Book Joint hosts two book clubs per month at its nearby incubator space.
In college, artist William Jamison bought a heat press because he wanted his own brand. After graduation, he bought himself a silkscreen machine and told his parents that he wanted to make art for the rest of his life. They gave him a year, said Amber “Ajay” Frazier, his business partner and co-director of Boxville.
“Ten years ago, he became my publishing man,” Frazier said.
Five years ago, after an opportunity opened up in Boxville, Frazier, Jamison and artist Eddie White began selling prints from consignment. They moved to a 40 foot container in June 2019.
With publishing, their work The Work Spot He also assists local businesses in Bronzeville and Hyde Park with marketing and branding. They have partnered with all the owners in Boxville to help them create their own marketing vision.
Frazier calls herself a “serial entrepreneur,” but says one of the best parts of her job is sitting down with a client, understanding what they want, and seeing it manifest in the final product. Brand is everything, she said.
“It is who you are. It’s like your fingerprint. It’s uniquely yours,” Frazier said. “It lets people know who you are. … If you have that tagline, people can resonate with your message.”
Frazier works closely with Ian Gonzalez, owner of Lap Lap Cornerstore in Boxville, which sells running gear. She said she worked on his decals and helped with the on-site printing of the various Nike events he hosts.
Gonzalez said he read the Harry Potter books and played “Grand Theft Auto” as a child. He even ran to the bus stop.
But he’s always been an entrepreneur, he said, and while working on his dream job at Nike Running Bucktown, he was hired to run the 2016 Chicago Marathon. He said meeting athletes who ran the race inspired him to run for the first time.
Runners call them evangelists. They will wash you. Their story inspired him to keep running longer and longer – 5 miles, then 10 and 15. Gonzalez has now run five marathons and two ultramarathons.
“I didn’t know you could see salt on your body the way you do after training for a marathon,” Gonzalez said. “For years and years I had energy that I just couldn’t get anywhere. That’s when I fell in love with running.”
Shiny sneakers line the wall of boxes, and jogging shirts and shorts are neatly folded on the shelves. Gonzalez opened a running shop in Boxville to cater to the south side, a part of town he felt lacked a running community.
His running group, seven on Sundays, brings together people of all ages and fitness levels. The group meets at the store at 7 p.m. and runs 7 miles around Washington Park and down South King Drive.
Before seven on Sunday, the racetrack in Chicago was mostly white and siled, Gonzalez said.
“In the north, they’ve met in their neighborhood, and what I hear when I go into the running group is that a lot of these groups are exclusive, elitist,” he said. “Everything is fast.”
He says his team and others in Hyde Park have changed the culture of the South Side. Now it’s more collaborative and more inviting.
Sunday morning was the last time the group would meet in front of the corner store. Like many Boxville businesses, Gonzalez plans to go bigger. But he said he was only able to do that because he started in Boxville.
More than 50 people gathered in front of Gonzalez’s blue-painted casket on Sunday. As they stretched and mingled, Gonzalez talked about what being in Boxville meant to him. He gets choked up when he talks about how much the running community in Bronzeville has affected his life.
“The running community is what inspired me to open this store,” Gonzalez said. “Starting Sunday Seven in Bronzeville and seeing the community grow has helped me find my love and passion for the sport.”
Boxville is about providing opportunities for growth, said Associate Director Walter Mendenhall. Businesses develop their leadership potential.
“It’s like a child. You take care of it, and eventually you’ll go away,” Mendenhall said.
He said they are now in the process of recruiting more businesses over the summer months. They received 32 applications, and will select the top 12.
Mendenhall is the founder of the Male Mogul Initiative, a non-profit organization that empowers young men through leadership, entrepreneurship and human resource development to transform the way they live and lead in their communities. Male Mogul has a for-profit space in Boxville where youth in the community sell clothing, artwork, books, and more, often made by themselves.
Male Mogul began in 2016 after Mendenhall spoke with a young man on the West Side at a career fair. He was a good kid — a basketball player, an honor roll student, well-respected at school, Mendenhall said. But he was also involved in drug dealing.
“After that conversation, I thought to myself: ‘How many young men in the city have the gifts, skills, and abilities to succeed? How many entrepreneurs don’t have the potential to succeed?” Mendenhall said.
It started with five children at a local church and has grown to serve more than 1,200 children. In the summer, his box is a community center.
“Our community needs to be healthy if our businesses are going to be healthy,” Amos said.
The 17 small shipping containers with drywall and electricity foster a warm and inviting environment in an empty Bronzeville room.
Being a small business owner isn’t easy, says Single.
She said the best part of owning a bookstore in Bronzeville is the conversations she gets to have with her customers. Children often come into the store and tell her they don’t like to read.
But sometimes, a child chooses a book that speaks to them.
“The other day a little boy saw a book and pulled it off the shelf and said, ‘Oh my God, that looks like me!’ she said to him.
These are the moments, they make it all worth it.