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Two Bookstores, Two Iconic Black Women
Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells — Say Their Names
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Jeannine Cook has long been intrigued with the life of Harriet Tubman. Since her discovery of a book about the abolitionist in her school library as a child, Cook has had a voracious appetite for all things Harriett Tubman and how she led over 100 enslaved people to freedom.
In Tubman, Cook sees the essence of what women, Black Americans, and others who have been marginalized over the centuries have endured and overcome. This was a major accelerant behind her decision in February 2020 to open Harriett’s Bookshop, a Philadelphia bookstore named after the famed abolitionist and social activist. It’s a store that is primarily tailored to readers with an interest in Black women authors.
Following that in 2021, Cook opened the doors to Ida's Bookshop, a Black-owned independent bookstore in Collingswood, N.J. that focuses on women authors, artists, and activities. It is named after journalist, activist, and early civil rights leader Ida B. Wells.
In a perfect world, Cooks says she would have similar types of bookstores in every state named after such iconic women figures as Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Toni Morrison noting, “there’s no shortage of amazing Black women who have done work that I think that needs to be and gets to be recognized."
Recently, I reached out to Cook to hear more about her Black-owned bookstore journey, the continued importance of sharing Black History, and what readers are interested in these days:
What is the deeper backstory behind why your decision to launch Harriett’s Bookshop and Ida’s Bookshop?
In many ways, the bookshop was my last resort. There was a huge void in our society. There were not enough places of peace where folks could come together to discuss ideas and imagine the future and disagree but respectfully learn from one another and venerate our ancestors. I needed a place like that. I needed a space that felt like it was overflowing with a love for curiosity and genuine connection.
Describe your initial expectations for the store when it was launched.
I figured that not many people would come to Harriett’s. So I’d end up sitting there alone writing my own books, with a person every now and then stopping by for a book and some deep conversation. But we sold out before we ever opened.
How satisfying that must have been.
It was. And then one day a woman walked by and she happened to be a reporter. She then proceeded to write a story about the store vibe. I laughed and said, “why not call the article “If Black Girl Magic Were A Bookshop”— She wrote the piece and the rest is history.
What else can you tell us about Harriett’s?
The other interesting thing is that our bookshop is located in a Philly neighborhood known for its racially tense past. So to see someone like me opening a shop like this here was quite a surprise for many. But you know we are working under the guiding light of monumental women. So there has never been a worry.
Describe the significance of these two stores in terms of fostering Black History in the communities they serve. What has the reaction been?
The community has poured into us in ways that my mind could never imagine. This experience has shown me that I was thinking too small about what it means to be a community organizer and to stand up to large corporations and say, listen, we will NOT be moved. And I was thinking too small about the power of books and book people—my mind is consistently blown by the depth of love that has come from around the world. Thousands of people came to the opening, thousands of people stood with us when we received racist threats, thousands of people have sent us love on social media, and now not only are people supporting us but they are choosing to support the community groups we support.
Can you share more on the community support?
For instance, Treehouse Books, which gives free books to children, is one of our partners. The other day we posted about them and someone donated $5000 to their organization for people to buy books from us. That person wasn’t even from Philly, they were from Oregon and chose to remain anonymous.
Yes, and this is just one example of many. It doesn’t include folks like Will Smith shining a light on us by launching his book here. Or folks like Nikole Hannah Jones coming to visit and sign all of our copies of The 1619 Project. Or folks like Isabel Wilkerson stopping by to sign copies of Caste that we then distributed for FREE to members of our community who attended our Sisterhood Sit-In. A few months ago I had the privilege of interviewing Alice Walker and she told me something profound, she said, “Jeannine, love is a generative force. Use as much of it as you can.”
What is the state of the bookstore industry these days and how are readers responding?
I think currently folks are truly concerned about the book bans that are sweeping across the nation. Readers know that so many post-apocalyptic texts reference a time in the future where books become illegal or hard to find or impossible to read. As we watch politicians and communities usher in that type of behavior, I am reminded of my ancestors, like Harriett Tubman who were refused the right to read or write in an attempt at maintaining control over minds and bodies. We are also seeing a surge in independent bookstores opening yet we have not seen that same surge in book manufacturing.
How are the big industry players impacting the landscape?
We know that these bookstore openings happen in waves and every few years we see mass closings. We have been working really hard to educate the public about numbers in this industry. For instance, if independent bookshops made 1% of what Barnes & Noble makes in a year we’d make $10 million dollars because they make $1.5 billion a year—a year! For me, the question has always been why is it that 80% of universities have a Barnes & Noble on campus vs working w/ their local independent bookstores? This shows that it’s way more than about books.
Then there’s Amazon
Yes! And studies show by the year 2025, Amazon is on track to sell 80% of ALL books. Do you know what that will mean if one corporation sells almost ALL the books? It will mean they get to decide what’s read and by whom.
In other countries, like France, there are policies in place to protect and honor the cultural heritage of local bookshops. Sadly, those same protections don’t exist here in the states. Ultimately, all of these numbers are determined by us. In other words, we are the ultimate decision-makers and have more power than some folks want us to realize. So if and when folks decide to shift these numbers, we will see a major change. We will see manufacturing and jobs in our communities, we will see institutions built on more than the bottom line, we will see peacefully facilitated political dialogue happening among an informed engaged citizenry, and we will see communities that thrive.
What books are you reading these days? And what’s next up on your shelf?
I just finished Finding Me by Viola Davis as we prepare to host an advanced screening of The Woman King about this powerful group of warrior women from Benin. This is the first and only epic film led by a woman lead. I just finished We Are Not Like Them, which is written by two locals who I will interview for the Collingswood Bookfest.
Any concluding thoughts?
Also, let me mention that I spent the Summer in France following James Baldwin’s footsteps and reading his works in St. Paul de Vence and Nice and Paris—I even popped over to Switzerland. I had no idea it was Baldwin who convinced Maya Angelou to write her first memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I am currently reading Leadership by Henry Kissinger as I think more and more about our work as being both local and global. I want to understand diplomacy and world affairs as I’m on a team based out of Paris that is working to translate a book called Queens of Africa into English and get it published here in the states. It is the ONLY book about the history of African women—Harriett is featured in it so I have to make it happen for her and for all of us.