Courtney Woods had a hard time relating to the characters in the books she read in school.
As a teenager in South Shore, she said she gravitated away from George and Lennie in “Of Mice and Men” and toward the books that lined her mother’s shelves — works by Richard Wright, Claude Thomas, Maya Angelou.
“I found that when I started reading about characters that looked like me — they had similar backgrounds as me, lived in similar settings and everything — it made reading so much more interesting,” Woods said.
Woods, 30, and her mother, Verlean Singletary, run a bookstore out of a shipping container in Bronzeville, offering stories they hope speak to the surrounding community. Their store, Da Book Joint, specializes in Black literature from around the world.
They’re part of a cluster of six businesses in Bronzeville housed in brightly painted shipping containers — a 2017 initiative called Boxville. Located on the corner of 51st Street and Calumet Avenue, Boxville is part of Urban Juncture Foundation’s Build Bronzeville Initiative, which works on the revitalization of the historic Bronzeville community.
The South Side has always been a book desert, said Woods. She described the corridor outside her bookstore as being undertrafficked, strewn with trash.
“I want everyone to realize there is more than what you see when you look out on 51st Street,” she said.
A concept that began in 2017 with a single business selling bikes out of a container is now entering its sixth summer with 17 available shipping containers that operate year-round. The summer months are when Boxville really comes to life, offering pop-up markets on Wednesdays and fitness classes and programming in the nearby garden.
Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, called Boxville a “creative approach to entrepreneurship” for young business owners. Micro-boxes are just $400 a month, while many brick-and-mortar establishments cost thousands of dollars to build out. An Illinois Small Business Development Center, hosted by Urban Juncture Foundation, has an office and public “incubator” space along the 51st Street corridor, just feet away from the businesses.
Lauren Amos, Urban Juncture’s director of small business development, said business owners are always popping their heads into her office to ask for advice. Born and raised in Chicago with a background in finance, she said spreadsheets are her love language. Her job is to offer one-on-one advice for local businesses, connect them with helpful organizations and provide resources.
The world of entrepreneurship can be lonely, said Amos. But Boxville is a vibrant and interactive community. Businesses set their own hours, though they’re all open between noon and 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
“People can come and find you. They can touch your products. Feel your products. You can build relationships with folks,” she said.
Singletary has loved reading since the age 3. She remembers devouring Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” as an 11-year-old, deeply affected by Celie’s story of endurance. An accountant by day, she passed her love of words on to her daughter.
Woods said she and her mother found out about Boxville through Desiree Sanders, mother of the rapper and poet Noname and owner of the now-closed Afrocentric Books, one of the first Black- and woman-owned bookstores in Chicago. They moved into their 20-foot box in December 2021.
The store has about 350 books on small shelves mounted to the wall. There are bookmarks and notebooks for sale under LED light, and plastic green vines that drape down from the ceiling. It’s modern, and almost has the feel of a tiny speakeasy.
Singletary said she can’t have all the books she wants because her space is so small. She pours through publishers’ magazines to curate her selection, which ranges from children’s books to crime fiction. Walter Mosley and K’wan Foye are authors she’s been reading a lot lately, she said.
“It has always been a dream of mine to have a bookstore,” Singletary told the Tribune. “I wanted to share all these wonderful titles that I’ve read and had exposure to with different people who may not know they exist.”
Da Book Joint hosts two book clubs a month in the nearby incubator space.
In college, artist William Jamison bought himself a heat press because he wanted his own brand. After he graduated, he bought himself a silk screen machine and told his parents he wanted to make art for the rest of his life. They gave him a year, said his business partner and Boxville co-director Amber “Ajai” Frazier.
“Ten years ago, he became my print guy,” said Frazier.
Five years ago, after an opportunity opened up in Boxville, Frazier, Jamison and artist Eddie White began selling prints out of a shipping container. They moved into a 40-foot container in June 2019.
Along with printing, their business The Work Spot also helps local businesses in Bronzeville and Hyde Park with marketing and branding. They’ve partnered with almost all owners in Boxville to help them create their own marketing visions.
Frazier calls herself a “serial entrepreneur” but said one of the best parts of her job is sitting down with a client, understanding what they want and then seeing it manifest in a final product. The brand is everything, she said.
“It’s your identity. It’s like your fingerprint. It is uniquely yours,” Frazier said. “It allows people to know who you are. … If you have that tagline, people are able to resonate with your message.”
Frazier works closely with Ian Gonzalez, owner of Last Lap Cornerstore in Boxville, which sells running goods. She worked on his decal and helped him with on-site printing for different Nike events he hosted, she said.
Gonzalez said he read Harry Potter books and played “Grand Theft Auto” when he was a kid. He barely ran, not even to the bus stop.
But he has always been an entrepreneur, he said, and while working his dream job at Nike Running Bucktown, he got hired to work the 2016 Chicago Marathon. He said meeting the athletes who ran the race inspired him to try running for the first time.
He calls runners evangelists. They suck you in. Their stories inspired him to go on longer and longer runs — 5 miles, then 10, then 15. Gonzalez has now run five marathons and two ultramarathons.
”I did not know you could physically see salt on your body the way you do after training for a marathon,” Gonzalez said. “I had years and years of pent-up energy not going anywhere that I just let out. That’s when I fell in love with running.”
Shiny sneakers line the walls of his box, and running shirts and shorts are folded neatly on the shelves. Gonzalez opened in Boxville to offer a running store on the South Side, a part of the city he felt lacked running communities.
His running group, Seven on Sundays, brings together people of all ages and levels of fitness. The group meets at his store at 7 a.m. and runs 7 miles around Washington Park and along South King Drive.
Before Seven on Sundays, the running space in Chicago was predominantly white and siloed, said Gonzalez.
“They met in their neighborhoods on the North Side, and what I would hear coming into the running group is that a lot of these groups are exclusive, elitist,” he said. “It’s all about fast.”
He said his group and another in Hyde Park transformed the culture on the South Side. It’s a lot more collaborative now, and a lot more inviting.
Sunday morning was the last time the group will meet in front of the corner store. Like many Boxville businesses, Gonzalez plans to move to a bigger location. But he said he’s only able to do so because he got his start in Boxville.
Over 50 people met in front of Gonzalez’s baby blue painted box on Sunday. As they stretched and mingled, Gonzalez spoke about what being in Boxville has meant to him. He got choked up talking about how much the running community in Bronzeville has affected his life.
“The running community is what motivated me to open this store,” said Gonzalez. “Starting Seven on Sundays in Bronzeville and watching the community grow helped me find my passion and love for the sport.”
Boxville is about providing opportunities for growth, said co-director Walter Mendenhall. Businesses develop their leadership capabilities.
“It’s kind of like a child. You nurture it, and eventually it leaves,” Mendenhall said.
He said they’re now in the process of recruiting more businesses for the summer months. They’ve received 32 applications, and will choose their top 12.
Mendenhall is the founder of Male Mogul Initiative, a nonprofit that transforms the way young men live and lead in their communities through leadership, entrepreneurship and workforce development. Male Mogul has a for-profit space in Boxville where young people in the community sell clothing, artwork, books and other accessories they’ve often produced themselves.
Male Mogul started in 2016 after Mendenhall had a conversation with a young man on the West Side during a career fair. He was a great kid — a basketball player, honor roll student, well-respected in his school, said Mendenhall. But he also was involved in selling drugs.
“After that conversation, I thought to myself, ‘How many young men in the city have the gifts, skills and abilities to be successful? How many entrepreneurs don’t have the ability to be successful?’” Mendenhall said.
It began with five kids at a local church and has grown to serve over 1,200 kids. In the summer, his box is a community hub.
“Our community has to be healthy if our businesses are going to be healthy,” said Amos.
The 17 small shipping container spaces with drywall and electricity foster a warm and inviting environment in an otherwise empty part of Bronzeville.
It’s not easy being a small-business owner, said Singletary.
She said the best part of owning a bookstore in Bronzeville is the conversations she has with her customers. Kids often come into the store and tell her they don’t like to read.
But sometimes, a kid chooses a book that speaks to them.
“A little kid saw a book the other day, took it down from the shelf and said, ‘Oh my God, he looks just like me!’” she said.
These are moments, she said, that make it all worth it.