On October 12, Harriett’s Bookshop in Fishtown will host a Sisterhood Sit-In event outside of the shop’s doors at 258 E. Girard Avenue.
Attendees will be welcomed to connect through song, movement, conversation, and, of course, over books. The event will be facilitated by shop owner Jeannine Cook, alongside her family, and a lineup of speakers and artists.
For Cook, the sit-in is a response to troubling events that have taken place in recent months.
In June, a mob of mostly white men armed with baseball bats, golf clubs, shovels, and hammers marched along Girard Ave., just outside of her shop. The group of men, who claimed to be protecting 26th Police District station in Fishtown, heckled, threatened and even assaulted residents that were peacefully protesting against racial injustice in the neighborhood.
Then, in September, Cook and 10 other Black-owned businesses in the city, received a disturbing email that contained racial slurs and threatened violence towards each of the business owners, their employees, and their families.
Despite these two incidents, Cook points out the kindness and compassion that she’s also experienced in the Fishtown community. When the mob of violent men marched along Girard Ave., a local woman stood outside of Harriett’s Bookshop to protect the storefront. When other neighbors heard the news of the threatening email that Cook received, many came out to show solidarity.
“For all of the nasty and negative folks that exist in this community and in this world,” Cook told NKCDC, “there’s always an equal and opposite amount of really beautiful and loving people who are willing to stand up.”
Creating space for community dialogue
Harriett’s Bookshop takes its name from historic heroine Harriet Tubman, the fearless conductor of the Underground Railroad that led hundreds of enslaved Black men and women along the pathway to freedom. The shop opened earlier this year with the mission of creating a space to celebrate women authors, women artists, and women activists.
In addition to owning and managing Harriett’s, Cook is also an educator, writer, artist, activist, and mother. These experiences have shaped her deep appreciation for the value that words and books play in our society. In her eyes, books provoke dialogue and that dialogue can be a catalyst for change.
“One thing about our society right now is that there is a lot of monologue,” said Cook, “there’s a lot of speaking and not so much listening. And I thought that a bookstore was a great place for people to have those kinds of conversations that come after you’ve read a book.”
From that perspective, Harriett’s can be seen as much more than just a place to buy books. The shop fosters space for neighbors to convene, read, discuss, relate and build community. A space of deep importance in a day-in-age where society can at times seem more polarized than ever before.
“What I’m noticing in our society that is completely lagging is that skill of perspective sharing,” said Cook. “And I’m not evangelizing, I’m not trying to make you have my perspective, I’m just here to listen to yours and also share mine and then we walk away from that with new perspectives.”
As an example of this, she points out an interaction she once had with man in the shop about the book “The Yellow House: A Memoir,” by Sarah M. Broom.
“He didn’t like it,” said Cook. “He told me all the reasons that he didn’t like it.”
But Cook, herself, had recently read the memoir and adored it. The two went back-and-forth in disagreement over the book, but there was no name-calling or disrespect, Cook recounted, unlike what she often observes on social media.
“On social media people get into mudslinging, but this was none of that, it was perspective sharing.”
2020: A year of adversity
By no means was 2020 an easy year to open a business.
Just weeks after Harriett’s opened its doors in early February, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Philadelphia and the bookshop was forced to close.
Cook persevered. Harriett’s has an online store where people can purchase books and merchandise. The shop also utilized sidewalk space for outdoor sales. And they won grant funding to cover the costs of backyard and basement renovations that provide extra space for shoppers to safely social-distance.
Through all the ups and downs this year, Cook said the shop’s namesake has been a source of inspiration.
“I’m always thinking, Harriet Tubman went through way worse,” she noted. “In the face of all of the adversity that we’ve been shown, it pales in comparison to what she went through.”
The entrepreneur also draws inspiration from her family and adversity that she faced earlier in life. When she was a child, her father was diagnosed with a terminal illness and her mother lost her eyesight. Cook also gave birth to her son as a 19-year-old student at the University of the Arts.
“What some people consider to be a radical act, to me was just a normal act,” she recalled. “I took my son with me to class every day.”
“I think that in some ways,” Cook added, “it’s indicative of what it means to be a mother and also to be an activist, to be a mother and also to be a business owner. It’s all encompassing, I can’t separate the two.”
“It’s important for other people to know that when you open a business, as a woman and as a Black woman,” she continued, “often there is more to it than just selling your products or service. You’re still dealing with the social construct. And if you’re in my position, pushing the social construct forward as much as you can.”
Sisterhood will help save the world
Another important reason that motivated Cook to organize next week’s Sisterhood Sit-in event was the deep sadness she felt over the unjust death of Breonna Taylor.
Cook’s feelings about the incident relate to negative encounters with police officers that she has experienced personally. While police represent safety and protection to some people, she said, to her they don’t.
That’s why, when Harriett‘s received the threatening email in September, Cook didn’t contact the police. She felt safer reaching out to friends and neighbors for help.
“A lot of what we’ve done as a society,” she said, “is that we’ve outsourced protection and safety to the police. And when you’re in a community where that relationship isn’t strong, you’re basically isolated.”
The Sisterhood Sit-in was put together by Harriett’s as an opportunity for neighbors to come together and begin shaping their own solutions for community safety. Cook would like to initiate dialogue about what more residents can do amongst themselves to protect one another and she’d like to give women a leading voice in that conversation.
“I’ve said it many times, but I think that sisterhood will help save the world,” she said, “Meeting each other in partnership will help in a lot of ways.”
In a description of the event, Cook wrote:
“Just like historic heroine, Harriett Tubman, we are destined to free ourselves. So in the spirit of sisterhood, in the spirit of freedom and justice for all and in the face of vile and consistent threats we say come stand with us, better yet come sit with us as we present clear and concise ways to protect or serve one another.”
If you’re interested in attending the Harriett’s Bookshop’s Sisterhood Sit-In event, be sure to R.S.V.P. by visiting this event page.
To learn more about businesses in Kensington, Fishtown, and Port Richmond, please visit NKCDC’s Business Directory.
If you’re a small business owner, artist, or entrepreneurs and would like to learn more about NKCDC’s business resources and technical assistance opportunities, please contact Jessi Koch (firstname.lastname@example.org), Jake Norton (email@example.com), or call 215-427-0350.