Fishtown: Local Bookshop Flourishes in Neighborhood Despite Challenges

Harriett’s employee Tykira Michell wraps a book with rope and lavender for a customer.

When Jeannine Cook opened Harriett’s Bookshop in Fishtown last February she was taking two risks: opening a small independent bookstore in an Amazon-dominated era and opening on the cusp of a global pandemic.

“COVID has been the reality of my entire existence,” Cook said. “I was just sending all the books back to the publishers and saying ‘Forget about it, you know I’m not going to be able to do this.’”

The bookstore has been able to survive during the pandemic and, thanks to a $200,000 crowdfunding campaign, it will move to a permanent location in Fishtown later this year. The bookshop reflects Cook’s vision: a tribute to Harriett Tubman, whose first stop after escaping slavery was Philadelphia.

“To me, that’s a very symbolic gesture that she came to Philadelphia,” she said. “Philadelphia has been and still is to some extent, a place where people come to talk about freedom, to think about freedom, to make decisions about what freedom will look like.”

Harriett’s has succeeded in a neighborhood that hasn’t always felt welcoming. During the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, an armed group of white counter-protesters took to the streets of Fishtown claiming to protect police and local businesses. Cook and her employees did not feel safe, she said.

“Our neighborhood had people walking around with bats and saying all types of crazy slang and derogatory messages,” Cook said. “So there have certainly been ups and downs for sure.”

Her experience overall in the community has been positive.

“I think that for every really kind and beautiful gesture that’s been overwhelmingly the case,” she said.

A newly purchased book at Harriett’s

A strong source of support for Harriett’s has come from social media, something she didn’t know she needed.

Cook’s young employees have changed her mind on the importance of a social media presence.

“They convinced me we needed it, and we actually ended up going viral on TikTok, so they give me great ideas like that. Honestly, I’m inspired by the young people who work with us.”

The store’s Instagram page has almost 60,000 followers.

Tykira Mitchell, who’s been working at Harriett’s for three months, calls the experience “an amazing opportunity.” 

“Ms. Jeannine is a Black woman who owns a bookshop and I am a Black woman who loves to read,” Mitchell said. 

A customer reading inside Harriett’s Bookshop

At a time when the book industry is increasingly dominated by retail giants like Amazon, small independent booksellers have to offer things online sellers cannot, according to Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA).

“During COVID-19, there seemed to be a greater sense among consumers to stay local with their shopping,” Dengler said.

Another advantage Harriett’s offers is a physical space for book lovers to gather, something Amazon cannot provide. Cook reached out to fellow Philadelphian Wendell Holland, host of HGTV’s Hot Mess House, for help renovating her backyard.

“It was a dingy backyard,” he said. “It was during the pandemic, so I had time. I went and checked out the space and I immediately saw the vision that Jeannine wanted, so I was all in.”

What followed was a month-long project for Holland and his crew. They transformed the dilapidated area into a beautiful outdoor reading nook.

“There were a bunch of trash cans and old, discarded bookshelves, and Jeannine just told me to go crazy with the design,” Holland said.

Before and after images showing Harriett’s backyard transformation built by Wendall Holland (pictured)

From the wood detailing and abundant plant life, the outside area of Harriett’s has completely transformed. 

“I call it an outdoor book oasis,” Holland said. “We brought all these elements together to bring you out of North Philly, to this magical book spot.”

Cook opened a second store — Ida’s Bookshop, named after journalist, activist, and educator Ida B. Wells — this summer in Collingswood, N.J. In the future, she’d love to dedicate storefronts to historical Black women across the country.

“I always imagined that I would open a bookstore in my old age when I retired,” Cook said. “But I feel like Harriett’s had a lot to do with me making the decision to start that quest a lot sooner.”

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