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Three years ago, South Philly resident Jeannine A. Cook came close to achieving her lifelong dream of owning a bookstore. She signed a lease for a space at 7th and Girard, began investing in renovations — and then the building suddenly burned down.
Devastated, Cook pulled back, and returned to her career. The UArts alum had found a calling teaching at Yes Philly, a school for teens who’ve dropped out or become entangled in the justice system.
She enjoyed the work, but then a friend forwarded an email from almost a decade ago. In the message, Cook had spoken of her love for writing, and promised she’d open a bookstore one day. It was a call to action for the 36-year-old Virginia native.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not following my dreams,’” Cook told Billy Penn. “Look how long I’ve been crying the same tune.”
She found a vacant storefront on Fishtown’s bustling Girard Avenue corridor, the bar-and-restaurant heavy strip that leads from Frankford Avenue to the river. The landlord was willing to take a chance on an independent brick-and-mortar, so Cook signed on, naming her business after Harriet Tubman, who she said she’s been obsessed with since third grade.
Harriet’s Bookshop quietly opened at 258 E. Girard Ave. at the beginning of January. So far, it’s been a hit. Half the opening stock sold out within two weeks, Cook said, and neighbors have been supportive both IRL and online.
That’s the opposite of what some told Cook to expect from the area, which has gained a reputation as a gentrifying enclave of well-off, majority white residents.
“One of my mentors was just like, ‘Girl, you are so crazy. You know you can’t open a bookshop in Fishtown. You’re Black,’” Cook recalled. “And I was like, ‘You know who else been told that? Harriett Tubman.’”
Bookstores are having a moment in Philly
Cook joins a resurgence of independent bookstores across Philadelphia.
Shakespeare & Co. opened a Walnut Street outpost in late 2018. Head & the Hand Books came to Kensington last April. And when the decades-old Penn Book Center ran out of money, new owners stepped in and breathed new life into the West Philly mainstay as People’s Books and Culture.
Harriet’s will distinguish itself with a focus not just on Tubman and related legacies, but on all women, Cook said.
Many of the books on its shelves are written by women, or address gender. Each month, Cook plans to feature a local woman artist, and curate the window book display to match how the art makes her feel. Currently showcased is a mixed media artist who goes by Karoline Yesterdaye.
She’s also planning of engaging events, community partnerships and a programs that serve women and kids.
Last weekend, Cook hosted an impromptu fashion show event that filled the shop. And on Friday night, she welcomed her regular meeting of the Whiskey Writer’s Club — a group of women who pair literature with brown liquor.
Next up, she wants to clear out the second room of the shop and craft a reading area for kids — somewhere comfy they can hang out with their parents and a good book. She’s also hoping to hire some people who were previously incarcerated, hearkening back to her past life as a teacher.
But first, she’ll host an official grand opening event on Saturday, Feb. 1. It’ll be an all-day affair, with activities from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
And she was glad to prove wrong the conventional wisdom about the neighborhood. Said Cook: “It’s been amazing. Fishtown has been very receptive.”