Much more than books

Books on a table
Before Harriett’s Bookshop was shuttered due to COVID-19 the indie bookstore in Fishtown was making quite the splash – and impact in educating a community. | Image provided

“I had come into the city carrying life in my eyes amid rumors of death, calling out to everyone who would listen.

It is time to move us all into another century.

Time for freedom and racial and sexual justice. Time for women and children and men. Time for hands unbound.

I had come into the city wearing peaceful breasts, and the spaces between us smiled. I had come into the city carrying life in my eyes.

I had come into the city carrying life in my eyes.”

These lyrics were written by renowned poet/activist Sonia Sanchez and they appear in a song titled “Stay On The Battlefield” by Sweet Honey In The Rock on their 1995 album, “Sacred Ground.” The words serve as sonic fuel for Philly-based writer/activist/entrepreneur Jeannine A. Cook, who listens to this selection every day, as it embodies her belief of “words as activism.” 

The Brooklyn-born, Hampton, Virginia-raised Cook took this belief and made it tangible by going from selling books and incense on the corner of Broad and Cecil B. Moore to opening her own entity, Harriett’s Bookshop, in Fishtown on Feb. 1. The intimate space serves a dual purpose, acting as Cook’s personal writing studio as well as a brick and mortar gallery of written works celebrating and promoting women writers, artists and activists, all identities that she has assumed along her journey. 

“Opening a bookstore is activism,” Cook said. “Especially a bookstore that’s run by a Black woman in a neighborhood that has a political and racially contentious past. That’s activism, right? Saying we’re going to do what needs to be done regardless of the status quo.”

Cook and Harriett’s Bookshop is a splash in a steadily mounting wave of independent bookstores that have burst onto the Philly scene and across the nation. According to WHYY, Philadelphia membership in the American Booksellers Association (a national not-for-profit trade organization that works with booksellers and industry partners to ensure the success and profitability of independently owned book retailers) rose by 15 percent between late 2017 and late 2018.

Harriett’s joins other indie shops such as Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown, Shakespeare & Co. in Rittenhouse Square and A Novel Idea in South Philly as suppliers of physical texts to quench the thirst of bibliophiles across the city. Though many will say that printed books are on the way out with ebooks and audiobooks taking over, Cook feels like there is still a strong demand to have words you can hold and that her particular niche is needed. 

Harriett’s Bookshop founder Jeannine A. Cook believes opening a bookstore is activism – especially as she notes one ‘run by a Black woman in a neighborhood that has a political and racially contentious past.’ | Image courtesy: Jeannine A. Cook

“There’s a lot of folks that still really enjoy reading a regular book and there are also a lot of folks who enjoy the communal aspect of a bookshop,” said Cook. “I just had this idea and I thought it was a cool idea. I still think it’s a cool idea and I prefer to be different. I want to live in a category of my own.”

Cook’s focus on women scribes is what sets Harriett’s apart from the rest. The shop is named in honor of iconic abolitionist Harriet Tubman, with whom Cook has been fascinated since a young child. Her enthrallment with the most legendary conductor of the Underground Railroad continued into adulthood. In fact, Cook’s latest authored release is a text titled “Conversations With Harriett,” which consists of 22 vignettes of posthumous discussions she’s had with the late freedom fighter. 

Most importantly, Harriett’s serves as an extension of Cook’s own brand of activism. For a little background, Cook began her community work while a media and communications major at the University of the Arts when she started a club called Positive Minds, a haven for young girls who had been adjudicated and were living in a veritable youth jail.

Cook has also worked for Yes Philly, where she taught young people who had either dropped out or were forced out of high school by infusing the arts into academics. Additionally, one summer, a South Philly family opened their doors to Cook and her youth, which resulted in the home being transformed into an art exhibit. 

“I took to the streets, and my idea was that young people weren’t being given an opportunity to voice their concerns,” Cook explained. “They weren’t being heard in a major way and they didn’t have access to communications tools. At that time, [these] young people didn’t have internet, they didn’t have cameras, they weren’t [on] cell phones. That was just what I thought was really important. When I think of activism, sometimes I think of people marching in the street and my activism hasn’t looked like that.

Mine just happened on street corners and it’s happened in neighborhoods. Those are the types of things that I considered to be activism and the ways in which I’ve been able to really be on the ground with real people, voicing their concerns and helping their ideas to be heard.”

““There’s a lot of folks that still really enjoy reading a regular book and there are also a lot of folks who enjoy the communal aspect of a bookshop,” said Cook. “I just had this idea and I thought it was a cool idea. I still think it’s a cool idea and I prefer to be different. I want to live in a category of my own.”

– Harriett’s Bookshop founder Jeannine A. Cook

Cook’s ministry has not been restricted to local grounds. She says that she has taken her activism abroad to empower and enlighten youth on foreign soil as well. 

“I’ve been invited to come teach in Nairobi. I’ve been invited to come teach in Birmingham, UK, where I’ve taught racism, colonialism and imperialism to youth from 16 countries around the world, using creative writing as a tool and a strategy for them to do organizing work,” she revealed.

Cook decided to stay in Philadelphia after college, following the birth of her child and her mother’s sale of her childhood home in Hampton. One of the reasons she loves the city is because she learned it was the first place Tubman came when she escaped enslavement in Maryland, but she has grown to love the city for much more. 

“I’m from the South. I was raised in Virginia, so it’s slightly slower than I enjoy. I like Philly because Philly is still a city, but it’s also a town in a way,” Cook observed. “Philly people know who you are. It’s not New York where you might never see [someone again]. You’re going to see the same people moving throughout time in Philadelphia and that’s very important to me. It’s a special thing about Philly that you can’t find in a lot of other big cities.” 

The consolidation and utilization of Cook’s experience, wisdom, vision, talents and principles have resulted in an oasis of thought and expression for women activists, seasoned and emerging. After the slaying of Mike Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, MO, at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014 and the plethora of police-involved killings of unarmed Black people that followed, a noticeable swath of Black women leaders was ushered in to head the charge of the overall Black Lives Matter movement. The #MeToo movement, which has valiantly challenged our society’s toxically patriarchal view and treatment of women, was founded by a Black woman in Tarana Burke.

This feminine social justice renaissance is in stark contrast to the male-dominated leadership of the Civil Rights Movement during the Jim Crow Era. Cook looks to uphold this trend through Harriett’s Bookshop, especially with the uncertainty of the days ahead with the COVID-19 outbreak looming and redefining reality for everyone. 

“This country was built on the backs of Black women. Like, that’s a group of people who had never led this country,” said Cook. “I imagine that it could have very interesting results and impact to have Black women now at the helm of things because we have a very different perspective on what this country is and what it gets to be.”

Cook foresees the days ahead as a symbolic retelling of the Egyptian mythological tale of Osiris’ body being dismembered by his evil brother, Set, and scattered throughout the Earth, with his goddess wife, Isis, travailing to regroup the ancient god-king. 

“Isis was just responsible for going and putting those pieces back together, and that was her form of leadership,” Cook reflected. “I think a lot about this being The Age Of Isis.”

In addition to being an inspiring presence, Jeannine A. Cook hopes Harriett’s can become an incubator-of-sorts for activists of all types. | Image: Jeannine A. Cook

In the future, Cook is aiming for Harriett’s to become an incubator-of-sorts for activists, following in the tradition of businesses in the turbulent 1960s that used their buildings as training grounds for young organizers. 

“We have a space at Harriett’s that I call The Underground, that’s our basement,” she explained. “I’m like, yeah, The Underground needs to be for private conversations and used to be a place where people can come and, you know, do the work.”

Aside from providing a space for women’s work, Harriett’s has seen some early success. The grand opening hosted a crowd of hundreds who gathered to support, according to Cook, and the shop has sold out of materials twice in its fledgling months. Harriett’s has also been the site of various events such as its Whiskey Writer’s Club where folks get together and write in a group led by a selected author over whiskey cocktails provided by a bartender. 

Since the coronavirus lockdown, Cook has adapted by transitioning Harriett’s to more of an online retailer that people are still patronizing. 

Furthermore, Harriett’s has been supportive of organizations and programs by designing online lesson plans based on books for their children. The shop will also be hosting online book clubs and providing web-based book reviews as Cook continues to curate the shop’s offerings. Most recently, Cook announced the “Essentials For Essentials” program, a benefit where followers are urged to buy books from a wish list for 50 frontline workers from the emergency departments of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Presbyterian Medical Center. 

Cook doesn’t see Philly as the beginning and end of her endeavors. Having a mother who was born in Trinidad, she looks to expand her entrepreneurship globally once the world returns to some semblance of normalcy. 

“Yes, I started in Philly, but I don’t think I’m finishing here,” she forecasted. “I think that the world is my home and so I’ve got to be able to move about.”

Harriett’s Bookshop | Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 258 E. Girard Ave.

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