Harriett’s Bookshop is currently painted from ceiling to floor in white to represent a blank slate – a design choice inspired by Will Smith’s new memoir, Will. He launched the book out of the Fishtown shop last month.
The currently white walls are upstairs. Meanwhile, in the basement, customers shop by candlelight, a nod to people, like those Harriet Tubman led, with no choice but to read in secret.
Owner Jeannine Cook, who also owns Ida’s Bookshop in Collingswood, New Jersey, aims to make book-buying magical again, as she lifts the voices of Black and women authors. Harriett’s Bookshop – named after the abolitionist and activist – opened in the Philadelphia neighborhood last year. Ida’s Bookshop – named after the influential journalist, educator and activist Ida B. Wells – opened over the summer.
“Both named for women who are considered to be heroines, who I consider to be mentors, who I consider to be guides,” she said.
Cook is constantly redesigning the bookshop to make it fresh and inspiring — she calls each new layout an exhibit. She changes the shop up once a month or so, she said. She hasn’t raised any investment dollars, but she received more than $230,000 through a GoFundMe page to buy the 600 square foot space that she previously rented.
The shops are run by six part-time interns called youth conductors. The group of 15- 25 year olds circulate every six months. The position – which is paid – is more than just working the bookshops’ front desks. Cook also mentors them to become entrepreneurs themselves.
Recently, a photo of Cook delivering books on horseback circulated Twitter. “Amazon ain’t got nothing on us,” she wrote. The horseback deliveries are another way she adds excitement to reading.
A Dream Made Real
The shop was a dream Cook planned to get to eventually. She figured she’d open the shop after she retired one day from her jobs as a teacher and a curriculum designer. (One of the last curricula she designed focused on colonialism and racism for a school in Nairobi.)
But she became frustrated with many aspects of her life, and decided change was in order. She rented a space for Harriet’s in early 2020, selling her own books initially, setting up thrifted and gifted furniture and investing her own savings to pay rent. She also brought in income by consulting on the side. “The upfront costs were minimal,” she said.
Worst case, she thought, it would fail and she would use the shop as her personal writing studio for a while. But just weeks after opening her doors, COVID-19 forced non-essential businesses to close their doors.
Cook was devastated. She stayed in the shop for a few days straight after she heard the news, fielding calls from her family friends checking to make sure she was eating, sleeping and doing OK.
“I just like, cried and had a meltdown, basically, because I had put a lot into getting this started, and then it was like it was over already,” she said. “I was just, like, really messed up over it.”
Eventually, the dread passed, and Cook turned back to the drawing board, asking herself how she could help her community.
She came up with the idea to provide books for frontline workers. Essentials for essentials, she called it. She asked customers to purchase the copies, which she then donated to hospitals and care centers. “What I thought would take weeks took an hour,” she said. “Like, people were upset that they didn’t get to buy a book for a healthcare worker. They wanted to do it so bad.”
Her sister came up with the idea to add prescriptions to the copies. Messages such as “take an hour to read” or “drink some hot cocoa” to give to exhausted and stressed out healthcare workers.
“That kind of kept us alive,” she said. “When I say alive, I mean, alive emotionally.”
She kept going to the bookshop everyday, even though it remained closed. Then, as the weather warmed up, she brought the bookshop outside, allowing people to buy books and pay electronically through Cashapp or Venmo. That move got her shop shared on Oprah’s Book Club’s social media, after Jamise Harper, the founder of diverse author platform Diverse Spines, visited its outdoor shelves.
As the summer rolled around in 2020 and protesters lined the streets following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Cook travelled to Minneapolis and Louisville to hand out copies of Harriet Tubman is Bound for the Promised Land by Kate Clifford Larson, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown and The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X.
Soon the community took notice and donations flooded in to keep it up. She handed out over 1,000 copies.
“[We] decided to give them out on the streets, to organizers and activists, with the intent that when all of the high energy dies down, we’re going to need a sustainable plan,” she said. “There are people who have already done that work. Some of that work has already been laid by people like Harriet Tubman if we were to read the books.”
Cook continues to attract people. Last month, about a hundred people lined up outside Harriett’s for Will Smith’s launch event. His team reached out to Cook this year out of the blue, she said. He chose his hometown of Philadelphia for the first stop on his book tour.
Through the last two years, Cook’s family has been massively supportive – her mother tends the garden, her sister manages events and her son runs the day to day. “It’s in many ways a family owned and operated business,” Cook said.
Be authentic. “There were so many people who were like, why would you open a bookstore? You’re gonna compete with Amazon?” she said. “It’s like Amazon could never be us, and that’s for the best. They could never compete with you being your full authentic self.”
Add excitement. From changing her stores’ layouts to handing customers books from on top of a horse, Cook’s moves had added buzz around books.
Center yourself in the community. Cook found helping her community – from the healthcare workers to protestors — fueled her purpose. Once she poured energy into the community, her community returned the support.