Few Philadelphians have done so much — made such an impact — as Jeannine Cook in the years since she came to town. The owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in Fishtown and Ida’s Bookshop in Collingswood, NJ seems to be everywhere there is a call for social justice and positive change — including reparations — doing the work, making the good trouble.
There she was, defying everyone who warned her against the neighborhood, opening up a Black- and women-focused bookstore in almost fully White Fishtown and another in 80 percent White Collingwood, NJ; leading the charge to create a federal holiday for Harriet Tubman; delivering thousands of books to Philly hospital workers during the height of the pandemic — and later, delivering books by horseback to online shoppers; hosting Isabel Wilkerson, Sonia Sanchez, Salamishah Tillet, Lorene Cary; traveling the country to protests after George Floyd’s murder to give out books about organizing; hanging out in person with Nikole Hannah-Jones and virtually with Alice Walker, hosting a worldwide book release party for Will Smith (one thing we can all agree on: the Fresh Prince picked the right spot to do that) …
To highlight just one, or even a few of, this Black woman’s accomplishments would be to shortchange an absolute force of human nature.
We will mention, however, that she has long been at the top of our list for Generation Change Philly, a partnership with the nonprofit Keepers of the Commons to provide educational and networking opportunities to the city’s most dynamic change-makers.
On top of Cook’s achievements, her degrees, her celebrity selfies, her powerful gatherings, her fearless actions, her intentional protests — and all the community lives she’s changed for the better — Jeannine Cook’s a mom too. Put that in your bonnet and sit with it for a while.
Here, a timeline of Cook’s impact on Philadelphia, from her earliest years to what’s on the immediate horizon:
1974 – 1999: The early years
At age 16, Celia Cook moves from Trinidad to Brooklyn, NY. She works as a librarian, in addition to several part-time jobs, and becomes a mother. In 1983, Jeannine is born, the second of Celia’s three daughters. Five years later, the family moves to Hampton, VA.
Third grader Jeannine Cook becomes enamored of Harriet Tubman. Around this same time, Celia Cook becomes legally blind. Jeannine and her sisters read their mom’s textbooks aloud to her and transcribe her dissertation, in order for their mother to complete her master’s degree in theology at Richmond Virginia Seminary. She gets the degree.
The family often relies on food and support from neighbors. As a teenager, Cook braids hair and babysits to earn cash.
2000 to 2004: A scholar-activist grows in Philly
Cook moves to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts, where she majors in media and communication and studies with professor Barry Dornfeld. She tells the department dean, Neil Kleinman — also then the director of UArts’ Corzo Center for the Creative Economy — that the only thing she dislikes about UArts is its lack of Black professors.
The next year, David Brown, who is Black and, now, a professor of public relations at Temple, comes on staff, reinforcing Jeannine’s belief in speaking truth to power.
She gets to know kids in her West Philly neighborhood and founds Positive Minds, which gives art materials to and leads creative community building projects with under-resourced children and families. Cook raises money for her work by selling books outside UArts’ Hamilton Hall.
Just before her sophomore year, Cook has her first child. She names him Messiah. By her senior year, the mother and son have become unhoused, occupying an abandoned home in North Philly with no running water or heat. She drops out of UArts. Professor Jack Murnighan finds her and explains she can finish school through independent study. She graduates in 2004.
2004 to 2017: Sharing knowledge through storytelling
Soon after, Cook starts teaching creative writing twice a week at the new John Street Community Center. Other days, she sells books and incense at the corner of Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. She later starts teaching creative writing at Point Breeze Performing Arts Center, District 1199C and Youth Build. “There are not too many programs I haven’t taught for,” she says.
In 2014, Cook earns her Master’s in Art Education from UArts. Her dissertation topic: re-engaging out-of-school youth using arts-based teaching methodologies.
Moving up the timeline for a dream she had planned for her golden years, in 2017 Cook subleases and starts renovating a store at 7th and Girard, with plans to open a bookstore. The building burns down. She returns to teaching, working with teens who’ve dropped out or become entangled in the justice system at Yes Philly (now an alternative school).
Through the American Friends Service Committee, she works with youths from 10 countries to develop a curriculum centered around racism, colonialism and imperialism.
2019-2020: A dream fulfilled
Cook’s sister finds and forwards her a decade-old email in which Cook had written about her love for writing. Cook compiles and has published an anthology of short stories she calls “a compilation of all the things I’ve written up to that point.” She titles the book Conversations with Harriett. She spells Tubman’s first name with two T’s, as Tubman did.
Cook finds another vacant Fishtown storefront, this time, at 258 E. Girard Avenue. She signs another lease.
In January 2020, Harriett’s quietly opens its doors. The bookstore feels like a gallery, where the books, mostly iconic and newer titles by Black women-identifying authors — Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, bell hooks — are the art.
Harriett’s first t-shirt is printed:
After the store’s grand opening in February, 2020, featuring Philadelphia Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson, people start calling the store more than a store, saying it’s a sanctuary, a hangout, a safe space, an art gallery, a monument. A gospel choir performs spirituals on Sundays.
Later that month, 76ers forward Tobias Harris makes plans to appear at the opening of Harriett’s children’s room. Celia and Jeannine’s sister come to help. They expect a crowd.
March 2020: Covid hits
The day Harris is scheduled to appear, the City of Philadelphia closes all non-essential businesses because of a new pandemic. Like most of us, Cook thinks this unnamed virus will last two weeks.
Two weeks later, it’s clear we’re in for the long haul. Cook enlists a customer who is an ER doc at Pennsylvania Hospital to help create a list of books hospital workers might want to read in this trying moment. Together, Cook and “Dr. Gina” South create Essentials for Essentials an e-commerce site where shoppers can purchase books for essential workers and compose custom notes — or “prescriptions” — that go inside the books. Their first stock sells out in one hour. Cook and her family end up hand-delivering hundreds of books in five trips to three local hospitals.
Says Cook, “But my landlord was like, ‘You still have to pay rent.’”
On Today Show:
In April, Cook sets up shop on the sidewalk outside Harriett’s. Sometimes, she or a family member checks out customers. At other times, there’s a grab-and-go honor system. (The outdoor retail concept remains today, weather permitting.)
May-June 2020: An uprising, a movement
The uprising over the police lynching of George Floyd engulfs the nation. Harriett’s Instagram followers triple from 3,000 to 30,000. Cook is unsure she can manage the spike, while most Black women-owned businesses suffer disproportionately because of the pandemic. She keeps her sidewalk shop going and with zero fanfare, jumps into the fray.
Cook quietly travels to Minneapolis to donate the first of 1,200 inspirational and instructive books — including Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: an organizing guide by Daniel Hunter, and Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown — she hands out to organizers and activists. She does the same in Kentucky, where she narrowly misses being shot by a police sniper, and back in Philly, at City Hall and in front of her shop.
Just around the corner from Harriett’s, White men with baseball bats proclaim themselves protectors of police against BLM protestors. The men go viral.
Later, back in Fishtown, Cook comes upon a group of White protestors silently kneeling for nine minutes to protest the time Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck. Ironically, this act of kneeling reenacts the murder itself. Cook described the scene as “jarring.”
“I asked, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ They shushed me, one of the few Black people there. This is the thing that happens in this country over and over again, where things lose their essence, lose their direction. In that very moment, silence is violence.”
April-July, 2021: Taking ownership, gaining control
Harriett’s lease is month-to-month; Cook worries her landlord could raise the rent or end the contract anytime, leaving her dream without a home. She craves ownership. She lacks the funds. She sets up a GoFundMe to buy a new building for Harriett’s. Her goal: Raise $300,000. The first weekend brings in $75,000. She plans to call the store “Harriett’s House.” It will be a bookshop, but also a larger space for “gathering, learning and healing.”
Later that month, Cook starts an online petition to Congress to create a national holiday dedicated to Tubman. She will go on to work with U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, who sponsors the Harriet Tubman Day Act. If successful, Cook points out, this would be the first federal holiday named for a woman.
In July, Cook purchases a building in Fishtown. With multiple floors and an outdoor space, it is nearly three times larger than her current space. Cook hires historic preservation architects to help with accurate restorations; she wants it to feel like the refuge Tubman sought when she came to Philadelphia and left, and returned uncounted times over 10 years to rescue 300 Black Americans out bondage.
The GoFundMe campaign, currently at close to $240,000 (from 3,600 donors), will remain open throughout construction and leading up to the opening. Supply chain issues cause delays, but work continues.
Meanwhile, across the river at 734 Haddon Avenue in Collingswood, NJ, Cook opens Ida’s Bookshop, named after the iconic journalist, activist and NAACP co-founder Ida B. Wells.
October/November 2021: A celebration, a sit-in
At Harriett’s post-quarantine reopening party, The Philadelphia Orchestra comes to play spirituals and other pieces, including one of Cook’s favorites, “Motherless Child.”
Cook and local Black business owners receive violent and racist emails (click at your own risk!). The messages threaten to burn, rape workers and mothers, and serve another reminder that BIPOC lives are in constant danger. In response, Cook posts a black-and-white photo of two Caribbean women holding machetes. (She owns a few herself.) She plans a protest.
Harriett’s and Fabricka, a Fishtown bar, restaurant and cabaret, host a Sisterhood Sit-In. Isabel Wilkerson, the journalist and author of the bestselling The Warmth of Other Suns, attends.
Says Cook, “We had three days to get it prepared, and it was supposed to rain. Myself, my sister and my sister’s wife were all out trying to find umbrellas. That evening, a line wrapped around the building of people who were coming to stand with us. We walked from Fabricka to Harriett’s in an umbrella procession, where the umbrellas made it so you could not guess who was in the audience — the ages, the so-called races, the so-called sexual orientation. That display of sisterhood, to me, was overwhelmingly beautiful. It made me feel safe to continue doing the work that we do. It was beautiful. It was really powerful to be a part of. We were gonna wade in the water, and that’s what we did.”
In November, Will Smith launches his new memoir, Will, at Harriett’s. Cook frames the two-hour event as a protest, telling WHYY, “The word protest has been minimized. It has lost a way. A protest could be many things. Why can’t a book launch be a protest? Why can’t me telling my story be a protest? It’s really about a protest of one: me walking my walk and doing things the way that I feel called to do them is my personal protest. That’s what Will has done with the book.”
On November 27, Small Business Saturday, she borrows a horse from Fletcher Street Stables, and delivers books — a stark, beautiful opposition to Amazon.
February 2022: Silence for Black History Month
As the country gears up for Black History Month, Cook renounces its commercialization and exploitation “without real retribution” for the historic, codified and uncodified impacts of slavery. Instead, she embarks on a month-long vow of silence, daily from sun-up to sundown. She writes on Twitter, “Beginning this day, Freedom Day, our 2nd anniversary, we feel called to step back. Something deep inside is saying to close our mouths and observe this month from a distance. To place space between ourselves and what this month has become. And to listen for what’s next.”
March 2022: A day for Tubman
The Harriet Tubman Day Act becomes HR 7013, a bill up for consideration by the U.S. Congress, with 7,800 petition signers, six sponsors — and no vote scheduled.
Cook is both proud and galvanized. She prefers direct to symbolic action. “It’s nice for us to come together and claim to be celebrating Harriet Tubman’s birthday, but we don’t know Harriet Tubman’s birthday because [she was born into] slavery. To just skip the step of addressing these things and not work on restitution is asinine.”
She refers to the group she saw a few months earlier, the ones who took a knee to protest George Flyod’s murder. “It’s kneeling for 9 minutes on an imaginary neck. It’s crazy. We will continue to see uprisings, racial inequality, economic inequality …” Cook embraces symbolism but calls for action. Axios quotes her as saying, “We don’t need another parade. We don’t need another party. What we need is substantial change.”
At the same time, Cook joins City Council as the City of Philadelphia proclaims March 10 to be Harriet Tubman Day, 200 years from the year of Tubman’s birth and exactly 109 years from the day of her death.
April-May 2022: Stepping in with literary giants
In May, Harriett’s hosts An Alice Walker Weekend, a hybrid event for the 40th anniversary of The Color Purple that includes an interview between Walker, WURD’s Sarah Lomax Reese, Cook and in-person events at both Ida’s and Harriett’s. This is a dream-come-true for Cook. She says Walker is “my person, the person I’ve wanted to have tea with since I was a little girl.” During the interview, Walker compliments Cook’s skirt.
June 2022: More to come here, everywhere
On June 8 at the Mann Center, Cook will receive her MFA in creative writing from Drexel University and speak at commencement. That same day, she will fly to Paris to take part in a program centered around James Baldwin’s work. She plans to remain in Europe afterwards to work on her next book, now top secret, but surely not for long.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the marital status of Celia Cook. She was married when she had her three daughters.
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