Philadelphia, PA, is no stranger to indie bookstores, but when the city’s Fishtown neighborhood welcomed Harriett’s Bookshop in February of 2020, it gained more than just a place for people to buy newly released novels.
Jeannine A. Cook, the writer and educator who founded the store, came with a specific vision, part of which includes honoring the legacy of a historical figure that she says does not get enough credit for her contributions; a figure who inspired the materials in one of Cook’s published works, as well as the name of her bookshop: Harriet Tubman.
Harriett’s Bookshop “is kind of like a monument,” Cook told Travel + Leisure. “It’s kind of like a way for us to honor Harriet’s legacy, and also for folks to have dialogue around important issues.”
While writing her book “Conversations with Harriett,” Cook said she felt called to take action and do something about the issues she saw in her community and the world at large. That calling was specifically to open a bookstore, where the “mission is to celebrate women authors, women artists, and women activists.”
Though the books in the shop are not exclusively written by women, most of them are. “It’s not to the exclusion of anyone else, but in celebration of those folks,” Cook explained, adding that readers who want to show their support but don’t find the book they want can always have it ordered and sent to the shop.
Visitors to Harriett’s will find books from a variety of styles and genres, but the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Octavia Butler will always be present. Those are what Cook describes as the “foundational texts” of Harriett’s.
Beyond those key authors, Cook makes sure that visitors have a new experience every time they come to Harriett’s by working with a local artist to rotate the collection of books monthly. Cook will ask the artists about what books were instrumental in their lives or what books they feel pair best with their works, which then get featured on the walls of the shop.
Tapping into her background as an educator and her love for her community, Cook says Harriett’s is more than a bookstore. “I’ve had folks that tell us that [Harriett’s] feels like a literary sanctuary,” she said. “I want to encourage folks to move beyond just reading the book into [saying] ‘it’s time for us to do some analysis, it’s time to discuss it.'”
Cook facilitates this deeper level of understanding through events, guided visits around the shop, prompting visitors to contemplate certain aspects of Harriet Tubman’s life with a moment of silence, and even by pulling one of her go-to teaching methods and putting thought-provoking questions on the walls.
“I was a teacher for many years and I come from teachers, so I believe that that’s just a part of who I am, and I kind of blend those worlds,” Cook said.
Cook’s penchant for bringing people together and creating change in her community is part of what many people say makes Harriett’s so special.
“You constantly see Jeannine out in Philadelphia as an activist, handing out free books, [and] organizing events. Books can be a catalyst for change, and well, so can bookstores. Jeannine is proof of that,” Eric Smith, an author and literary agent, as well as a fan of the shop said. “I feel like Harriett’s makes my neighborhood feel like a neighborhood. That’s what a bookstore does, you know? It makes a place feel a little more like home.”
Drawing strength from the community is also what helped Harriett’s survive the COVID-19 pandemic. After opening in early February 2020, the shop was forced to close down just six weeks later, devastating Cook, who had worked so diligently to make this dream a reality.
But she did not let the setback deter her. Instead, she spent six months setting up shop on the sidewalk, allowing people to get books with a grab-and-go honor system. According to Cook, the community response was overwhelmingly positive.
“The mission is the mission is the mission, and you just keep going with the mission,” Cook said of that difficult time when the store first shut its doors. “I broke a lot of furniture. I got rained on. But people needed books more than ever at that point. We know all the healing properties that come with reading, so we just kept going.”
To this day, though she can now operate indoors, Cook still sets up shop outside on occasion, knowing that it brings in customers that might not have walked into the shop otherwise. And the community support is still going strong. Just this April Harriett’s launched a GoFundMe campaign in hopes of raising money to buy the building where the bookshop is located. In just three months, they met their goal and now Harriett’s owns its location outright and has a permanent home.
“When you really care about people, people really care about you. Love begets love. And it was so much love,” Cook said.
Though Cook is a busy person these days, she’s also leaning on community support for an even larger initiative: creating a federal holiday to celebrate Harriet Tubman and her legacy. Cook has already succeeded in petitions to make March 10, the anniversary of Tubman’s death, an official city holiday in Philadelphia. But in a country where not a single federal holiday is named after a woman, she says she won’t settle for just a city holiday.
In the meantime, Cook says she will keep serving her community and using books and education to “eradicate ignorance.”
Visit Harriett’s Bookshop at 258 E Girard Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19125.
Jessica Poitevien is a Travel + Leisure contributor currently based in South Florida, but always on the lookout for the next adventure. Besides traveling, she loves baking, talking to strangers, and taking long walks on the beach. Follow her adventures on Instagram.