When Iesha Malone was young, she turned to books to escape reality.
Malone grew up in Roseland, where she said her family sometimes struggled financially. Reading was his entertainment and his outlet.
“I’ve been everywhere. I have been of all ethnicities, of all ages. I’ve been a man,” Malone said. “And those things when I was growing up helped me deal with the shootings, the murders. And I lost a lot of people in my life, so the books helped me lose myself.
Knowing the power of literature, Malone is working to create a reading cafe in Roseland to help children and others in his community have a space to escape to a book and be inspired by stories.
She’s not the only one with plans to bring more reading options to the South Side. Verlean Singletary opened Da Book Joint in Bronzeville in November with the same goal as Malone — to give South Side residents, especially young people, better access to books.
With Singletary’s new bookstore on 51st Street, west of Martin Luther King Drive, and Malone’s Rose Cafe set to open on 107th Street and Martin Luther King Drive in the first half of 2022 – pending permit approvals from the city – residents won’t have to travel far to find books whose characters and authors reflect the diversity of Chicago’s South Side.
Most of the books in Malone and Singletary’s stores feature black characters and are often written by black authors.
The two women also found ways to raise funds and provide free books to children.
Mattie Terry and her daughters walked out of Da Book Joint, one of many small stores in Boxville, a shipping container market, with several books in hand on Small Business Saturday. Her daughters, 18 and 13, had young adult novels; and Terry found a children’s book, “Just Like Me” by Vanessa Newton, whose main character resembles her 5-year-old niece, as well as books for herself.
“It was really good, on the one hand, to support a black company and, on the other hand, to kind of support black authors,” said Terry. “It’s kind of like, you know, flipping your black dollar multiple times.”
Terry said it’s important for kids to read books about characters that look like them and books that can better explain black history.
She said she hoped to see more bookstores like Da Book Joint pop up in urban communities.
“I think it’s important because it kind of helps them get represented. It helps them with mental health,” Terry said. “A lot of times, you know, my kids don’t learn about this stuff until later, or read about it and understand their family dynamics, their demographics, their trauma and how to deal with it.”
She said the books can also help children understand why certain groups are more disadvantaged than others.
Singletary understands the importance of having children read stories they can relate to.
“Our kids, they need to see books, they need to see that they’re represented by books,” Singletary said. “They need to see books by authors who look like them about characters who look like them. So that was always my goal with Da Book Joint.
That was his goal in 2007, when Singletary opened Da Book Joint at the corner of 95th Street and Jeffrey Boulevard. It was the year Amazon first released the Kindle and the year the Great Recession began. She held on for two years, until 2009 when she decided her business plan wasn’t viable and had to close.
Da Book Joint has become an online bookstore, with pop-up sales at local events. But as the economy improved and people started to want to support small businesses more, people started asking her when she would open a store again, she said.
She started much smaller this time, a more sustainable business model, she said. Upon entering her new shop, people are greeted with a series of mostly adult books on a table to the right surrounded by two shelves with young adult books and beginner books. To the left, other children’s books are displayed on two shelves, most with black boys and girls on their covers.
Singletary also started the nonprofit Options for Literacy, an organization that raises money to donate books to underserved young people in schools.
Singletary has always had a passion for reading. The books have helped her improve her vocabulary, reading comprehension and even math skills. Her mother told her she started reading when she was 3 and always had her nose in a book, she said.
“I think the level of understanding I got from reading opened a lot of doors for me,” Singletary said. “And it’s something that I’ve always encouraged my kids (to do) too.”
Singletary has a son and a daughter, both adults. His daughter participates in the management of the store.
Prior to opening Da Book Joint in 2007, Singletary worked in accounting for 15 years.
“I just decided, you know, I want to do something with my dream,” she said. “I want to bring something to my community.
Like Singletary, Malone wants to bring something positive to his community.
Malone launched Rose Cafe as an online, pop-up bookstore last year amid seeing people protesting in his community, with some storming into nearby stores like the Walgreens where his father takes his medicine. When she asked those looting why they did this to their own community, they said, “It’s not up to us,” Malone said.
She also saw people coming together to clean up the community and realized that what the community needed was more resources. Malone decided to open a business in Roseland.
“I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was going to be something. Because I taught, I knew, I know the power of education,” Malone said. “We don’t need a bar. We don’t need a restaurant. We don’t need a clothing store. So I said, ‘I’m going to sell books.’
She and her business partner, Rebecca Silverman, are preparing to open a reading cafe next year in Roseland. When Silverman saw Malone’s Facebook post about her plans to open a bookstore, she immediately reached out, offering to help. Silverman’s father, an attorney, helped the two women start the Rose Cafe LLC.
Through Rose Cafe and in partnership with other bookstores, she and Silverman raised funds and donated 8,000 books to children on the South Side.
Malone is an English and language arts teacher for grades five through eight at Chicago Collegiate Middle School.
She believes that reading and education can help reduce violence in her community and help people talk about their frustrations. And reading books by black authors and with black main characters can help inspire people, she said.
She also hopes that bringing the Reading Cafe to Roseland will motivate others to open their own local businesses, creating economic growth in the community.
“If we see what we can be, we might want to do it,” Malone said. “If we hear our stories, we might want to do better.”
The name, Rose Cafe, was inspired by the poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” by the late rapper Tupac Shakur.
Have you heard of the rose that grew
a crack in the concrete?
Proving that the law of nature is wrong
learned to walk without having feet.
It’s funny, but keeping his dreams,
he learned to breathe fresh air.
— Long live the rose that grew from the concrete
when no one else ever cared.
The poem “symbolizes coming through adversity, coming through a lot of hardship but still growing through the crack and being beautiful,” Malone said. “That’s exactly how I see the Rose Cafe. We start here and we can be beautiful. Roseland can be beautiful.