On A Mission! Call & Response Empowers Strong Vibrant Authors

We sat down with Courtney Bledsoe to chat about all things books and cultural diversity! Let’s dive into what makes Call & Response the perfect bookspot for Chicago. 

Author's Corner Black Voices Book Culture Bookish Lifestyle Bookspot / Libraries Diversity Recommendations

Call & Response is an independent bookstore in Chicago, IL with a very important mission, giving marginalized authors a space where they are the stars of the show. It’s no secret that the literary world has harshly hushed non-white voices, and although the industry is striving for inclusion, it’s the passionate people — like owner Courtney Bledsoe — who drive that change from the ground up.

Street view of Call & Response.

Courtney’s vision began with her personal page highlighting underrepresented authors, so when it was time to choose a name for her brick-and-mortar shop, she knew she had to honor [the] African diasporic traditions of music and storytelling. Traditionally, call-and-response is a dialogue of two phrases, musical or otherwise, between a leading phrase and a response phrase. Courtney’s name choice was impeccable because this form of communication goes beyond literature. It connects participants to the origins of call-and-response in sub-Saharan Africa and immerses them in an authentic cultural experience, just like Courtney’s mission to showcase these authentic experiences through her store’s collection.

Call & Response

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In-store book display featuring black authors.

How did your bookstore transition from concept to reality?

As someone who is extremely passionate about sharing and amplifying stories by and about Black people and other people of color, and as someone who has always been an avid reader, I wanted to create some kind of space that was intentional about centering those voices and perspectives. For several years I had run an online space, busyblackbookworm, that provided recommendations and reviews of books by and about people of color, and I wanted to bring that to a physical space that could operate as a third place–somewhere that people felt like home and that amplified voices of the global majority.

What do you feel is unique to your bookstore?

I think there are a few things that make this space unique. First, the inventory in this space is carefully and, I would say, painstakingly curated to reflect the diversity of voices that exist not only in our country but across the globe. There are a lot of times where people will come into the space here and express surprise at not having seen a lot of the titles in here before — and that’s because, unfortunately, the publishing industry still tends to push authors of color to the margins. With this bookstore, I want to reframe readers’ thinking and highlight books that are often not put in the spotlight despite deserving that attention. The other thing about this space is that even in the roughly two months that the store has been open, we’ve opened it to events that haven’t been “typical” bookstore events — we have a monthly trivia night that has been quite the unexpected success, and we also had a wine tasting here! It’s been really cool to see how excited people have been about not only the author events here but the other less bookish events that we have to offer.

Interior view of Call & Response.

If you had infinite space, what might you add to the store?

I’d really love to have some kind of coffee service here. Initially it was part of the vision but there was so much administrative and bureaucratic red tape in getting that set up that I just decided not to pursue it until perhaps a later date. I would love to have a place where people can sit down with a nice cup of coffee and linger for a bit. Currently, we do sell non-alcoholic beverages here, but it would be nice to have some basic prepared drinks, especially once it gets colder out and people are looking for a nice warm beverage to sip while avoiding the cold.

How do you feel your bookstore fits into your local community?

I feel that this store’s offerings reflect the fact that our community is in large part populated by Black folks–not only that, but reflects the fact that Chicago more broadly is an incredibly diverse city (in fact, most people who live here identify as non-white). This bookstore is intentional about uplifting narratives that might closely resonate with many of the folks who call Chicago their home. And I’ve been excited to have events here that might not necessarily be typical bookstore events, like trivia nights! One of our first events was also actually a wine tasting by a Black woman who wrote a book about how to talk about wine in a (relatively) sophisticated manner! I love making the space accessible both to people who are long-time readers, newer readers, and those who are not so sure about how they relate to reading in the current moment.

In-store table display featuring non-white authors.

What does your store offer that a chain or online retailer can’t?

Here we are proud of our curated selection of titles that reflect the diversity of our city and country. The titles on the shelves are all hand-picked by myself or the other staff member–no algorithms here! We love giving thoughtful, personal recommendations for people looking to get back into reading, looking to grab a gift for a loved one, or anything else. Additionally, at this store, you’ll likely find titles you’ve never even heard of on our display tables, since part of the goal is to celebrate books from communities that often are unfortunately overlooked in the publishing and bookselling world. I enjoy being thoughtful with the books we highlight here; we have just around 2000 books here, give or take, which isn’t a huge selection, but it does give us some freedom to choose books that we’re excited about or that other folks in the community have voiced excitement about.

Do you handpick your staff to create a specific environment?

It’s a really small operation here; just me and one full-time staff member. They are really incredible and help highlight books that might not have been on my own personal radar. 

How else do you create a welcoming environment?

I like leaning into the concept of being a “third place” — a place that isn’t your home or work that you feel comfortable retreating to on a random day. We’ve got chairs and a sofa for people to lounge in, and it’s been so cool to already have regulars who enjoy just hanging out and chatting or sitting down with a good book

Lounge area inside Call & Response.

What about your store do you think appeals to your neighborhood?

The fact that the store is intentional in centering and championing books by Black, brown and other marginalized peoples is something that people have repeatedly expressed appreciation for here. Chicago is an incredibly diverse city — in fact, it’s mostly non-white — and I think having a space that reflects the reality of this city is something that people appreciate here. And, I think having a space that is intentionally designed for lingering and hanging out is something that people really enjoy!

Do you have any staff picks or releases we should watch out for?

One book by a local author we’ve been loving is The Night Parade by Jami Nakamura Lin, a speculative memoir that incorporates elements of Taiwanese, Japanese, and Okinawan folklore to discuss the author’s life and experiences with bipolar disorder. Also, I’ve been loving Skin & Bones by Renee Watson — it’s a beautiful novel that follows a 40-year-old Black Portland woman on the eve of her wedding whose life is suddenly thrown into turmoil after an admission from her fiancé. I’m not familiar with Portland or Black Portland history, so it’s really been a great read so far.  

Skin and Bones book cover. Black woman looking over the horizon.

“A soulful novel that elegantly laces personal and cultural history through the eyes of a larger-than-life Black woman whose responsibilities to herself and those around her push and pull, shrink and expand. It’s the kind of work that exposes matters of the heart with softness and guidance instead of melodrama and pedantry.” — MORGAN JERKINS, New York Times bestselling author of THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING 

Do you tailor your inventory according to your community?

Absolutely. There’re several books that people here have loved, and we keep selling out of, including Self Care for Black Men by Jor-el Caraballo and Black Liturgies by Cole Arthur Riley. I think there’s a lot of burgeoning interest in the wellness and self-care space because unfortunately in Black and other POC communities it is not talked about as much as it should be, but that’s starting to change. So, there are books and certain types of books that, even in the first month of being open, we’re seeing that people have an ongoing interest in.

What’s your favorite book?

This is an impossible question! I’ll share some of my recent favorite reads. I really enjoyed Skin & Bones by Renée Watson — a touching exploration of Black womanhood, friendship, motherhood, and also a great tribute to Black Portland. Another recent favorite is actually a graphic novel called Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohamed — it was translated from its original Egyptian Arabic (the title means “your wish is my command”) and is such an amazing fantastical tale of people chasing their heart’s desire — or, at least, what they believe is their heart’s desire. Lastly, one of my favorite science fiction/fantasy books is The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez, which might be considered by some to be more “literary” (whatever that word means) but considers what humanity might look like when we take to the stars and engage in intergalactic space travel. I found myself so emotional by the end; it’s such a beautiful human-focused story that still checks those science fiction boxes for those who are fans of the genre.

Shubeik Lubeik cover. A wine bottle is floating from a hand.

Is there anything else that you’d like our audience to know?

I’d love people to know how important it is to amplify voices of the global majority. The reality is that publishing often fails to provide the same level of marketing for POC-authored books as it does for white-authored books, which creates a vicious cycle of people wrongly believing that the demand just isn’t there for these kinds of stories. Every day I see people light up in here to find a book that encapsulates an experience similar to their own, or to find a book that discusses a perspective that is entirely new to them. People want to both see themselves in books and want to learn about a diversity of experiences beyond their own, and I think that’s what makes this bookstore unique and so special.

We thank Courtney from Call & Response for interviewing with us. Be sure to give her Bookspot a follow on Instagram. And don’t forget to check out their website and support this indie bookstore with a purchase of your next read from them.

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If you loved learning about this fabulous Midwest bookspot, then check out Loganberry Books next!

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