Photo courtesy of Jeannine Cook/Harriett's
Content warning: This article contains mentions of threats of death and rape. Reader discretion is advised.
For Jeannine Cook, founder of Harriett’s Bookshop – Philadelphia’s newest black-owned indie bookshop – books are an essential part of life.
“Literally, [books] are like food for the brain. And I thought that what better gift to offer the world than that?” Cook said. "Food for the brain, a place for dialogue, a place for conversation, a place for peaceable disagreement, a place for questioning, and conversation, and civic action. And all of that kind of converges into what you experience when you visit Harriett’s."
Harriett’s Bookstore, which was named after Harriett Tubman, celebrates women authors, artists and activists. As for where she got her inspiration for Harriett's, Cook pointed to two things: education and representation.
“We get what we get in school," Cook said. "It’s very limited. It’s very biased. And then we kind of move on without really learning the truths about who it is that built this country and who it is that has really paved the way for our humanity... And I recognize that people like myself– women in my position– a lot of the time, we have a limited amount of space, and especially space for ourselves.”
Cook has been actively searching for a more permanent space for the last five months, fundraising to help cover the costs of a new location for Harriett's where she could hold ownership. Cook managed to raise over 200,000 dollars in less than three months, and on July 12, she happily announced that she was officially under contract for a new spot in Fishtown.
Despite the many obstacles Cook has faced over the past year, like having to close Harriett's doors a mere six weeks after opening due to COVID-19 and receiving death and rape threats from bigots threatened by her presence, Cook has managed to keep Harriett's alive by relying on community.
Determined to continue providing a space for diverse education, Cook and others offered curbside options for patrons of Harriett's for six months. Now that the shop is once again fully open to the public, Cook has been regularly hosting Philly musicians and featuring local authors' works.
"We were able to remain a staple," Cook said. "We were able to show people, this is how you remain victorious, even in the face of the most atrocious tragedy.”
And Cook is no stranger to perseverance in the face of tragedy and injustice. Last summer, during the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, she was inspired to give back to her community by handing out books to protestors.
“Protest is about being creative," Cook said. "It’s about creatively taking on systems and making them different as a result of an innovative approach. I think that by showing up at protests with books, we supported people in a few ways. We were able to give organizers and activists books that I thought might be helpful to them, once the emotions of the moment died down. It also helped us to think a little bit differently about what was possible in terms of protest... And for every negative experience I’ve had, I’ve had a hundred more positive ones. There was a time when people stood across the front of the building so that our glass wouldn’t be broken."
Daina Culbreath, a frequent patron of Harriett’s and a life-long bookworm, was thrilled when Harriett’s opened their doors last January.
“I was super excited when they opened,” she said. “I’m drawn to them because of black-owned empowerment, and the meaning behind the name really stood out to me.”
Cook identified Harriett Tubman as one of her biggest inspirations, along with Ida B. Wells, who is the woman behind Cook's second bookstore opening soon in South Jersey.
Before deciding to open Ida's, Cook said she toured Ida B. Wells' hometown, visiting the house she was born in and the place she saw her first lynching.
“There's a spiritual element to it," Cook said. "I wanted to walk in her footsteps as much as I could."
Photographs courtesy of Jeannine Cook/Harriett's